From time to time, certain governments get the smell of death about them: they pass what seems to be a point of no return, where nothing can be done but wait for the inevitable electoral downfall.

The Howard government had it in 2007, as did state Labor governments of the early 1990s in Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, and, further back, the Victorian Liberal government of 1982. The government continues to go through the motions, but people have stopped listening and are just looking forward — whether with enthusiasm or resignation – to the opposing team that will replace it.

The Labor government of New South Wales reached that point some time ago. It is as certain as anything can be in politics that it is headed for massive defeat on 26 March, and that opposition leader Barry O’Farrell will be the new premier. The most recent Newspoll showed the opposition with a lead of 22% in two-party-preferred terms, a swing of more than 13%.

But low expectations create a degree of opportunity; premier Kristina Keneally — who seems not to be personally so unpopular (as recently as six months ago she was level with O’Farrell as preferred premier) — has the advantage that she does not actually have to win in order to be seen as a hero for her party. Anything short of annihilation will be a triumph.

And in fact governments do, occasionally, come back from apparently impossible positions – if not to win, then at least to perform creditably. Recall, for example, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, trailing the opposition by 21% at the beginning of the 2005 election campaign, but getting to within 1% of them at the election: enough to give his social democrats a place in a grand coalition.

So a leader like Keneally searches desperately for the trick that might enable her to pull off such an unlikely comeback. Her move yesterday, however, to apologise for Labor’s past mistakes, is not it.

The Daily Telegraph describes the apology as an “extraordinary step”, and it’s true that a generation of politicians seems to have been trained to never admit to any wrongdoing, however obvious.

At the same time, however, they crave the credit that the electorate would give for genuine humility. Hence the tendency to fake it, in the form of the “non-apology”: where a politician, instead of “I’m sorry I said something offensive”, says “I’m sorry people were offended by what I said.” Not the same thing at all, but the casual listener might fail to spot the difference.

Those interested in the semantics of apology should study the archives at Language Log.

Back in 2007, Geoff Nunberg, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, pointed out there that even insincere apologies (or non-apologies) can serve a social purpose:

“In the contemporary theater of contrition, the point of ritualistic public apologies isn’t to demonstrate that an offender is really, truly sorry, but only that public opinion has the power to exact the expression of self-abnegation”.

Keneally’s words yesterday do at least amount to a genuine apology, at least in form. And it’s plausible to think that she really is sorry that Labor has made so many mistakes – although probably less for their effect on her constituents than for their effect on her electoral fortunes.

If some voters, perhaps apprehensive of giving the opposition too sweeping a mandate, are looking for an excuse to forgive Labor, then yesterday’s apology might help that along. The Tele’s editorial — which, oddly enough, is much fairer and more balanced in tone than its “news” report — describes it as “a good beginning” towards rebuilding Labor after the election.

But on the available evidence, forgiveness is far from most voters’ minds at the moment, and Keneally is fast running out of time in which to change the public mood.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey