Whether it’s the “stolen generations”, kids overboard or the 2004 interest rate promise, the Kirribilli Casuist has parsed sentences, tortured meaning and twisted words for so long, it is now an automatic reaction for him.

Maybe it’s a semantic form of nervous twitch.

Yesterday we were pondering the arcane question of whether the Government could somehow spin a rate rise into a positive. What complex explanation could save the Coalition’s electoral fortunes? This was political debate at its most complicated and nuanced.

But all that became moot when the Prime Minister stood next to his Treasurer, in that awkward Little-and-Large pose the “agreed agreement” condemns them to, and declared that he hadn’t apologised for interest rate rises at all.

As they say in the classics, WTF?

Howard was smart to say sorry on Wednesday. It may not have gained him a single extra vote, but it suggested he was aware of having dudded Australians in 2004, no matter how he tries to wriggle out of that. But in offering one of his trademark dips into the dictionary, he undid all that in an instant.

Not merely did it extend the dominance of interest rates in the campaign another day, it would have annoyed punters no end. The footage on the commercial news bulletins was deadly, especially with “Howard takes back his apology” commentary.

Howard of course did no such thing, but “apology” versus “sorry” is a distinction without a difference for those Howard battlers out there in the mortgage belts. Most of them wouldn’t own dictionaries, and the ones that do will now probably have to pawn them to finance their house repayments.

This was a far more damaging “gaffe” than anything Peter Garrett said to homoph-bic midgets in airport lounges. But there seems to be a code amongst mainstream media journalists that the PM never commits “gaffes”, no matter how clumsy or offensive his statements.

Julia Gillard, barely able to restrain a grin, almost muffed the Labor response. “Sorry seems to be the hardest word for the Prime Minister,” she declared. A nation groaned as one.

Another Howard trademark was also on display yesterday when he addressed the Institute of Public Affairs. The IPA, for all its protestations of “independence”, is a reliable supporter of the Liberal Party, but lately even it has become restive in the face of the Government’s profligate spending. Perhaps to assuage right-wing pride, the Prime Minister declared that Australia was becoming an “Opportunity Society”.

Howard may have abandoned most of the personal traits that marked his first period as Liberal leader, but the nerd who devised “incentivation” will always be with us, trying to devise a lasting political catchcry. It’s only a few weeks since “aspirational nationalism” came and went with nothing more than mockery from the blogetariat. “Opportunity Society” will fare no better.

Howard does catchphrases about as well as he does apologies.