banking royal commission sorry apology

The purpose of this round of hearings is not to hear further apologies or expressions of regret.

These words were spoken yesterday at the banking royal commission. They were spoken to CBA executives, but should be more generally heard. The purpose of the inquiry is not to extract a “sorry” from a sorry sector’s lot. The purpose is to understand the sector.

“Sorry” has its value in many other contexts. Without it, our social bonds would fray. But this is the “sorry” that is conscious of its need to be said. The full and proper “sorry” is not a rationale for having behaved like a twit, but an avowal that we did.

“Sorry” may be appended by a short history of how we came to behave like a twit and it may be a chance for us sorry twits to atone. “Sorry” must be mined from the gut at great risk of herniation. To have value, “sorry” must be true. But, the real purpose of the “sorry” is not to be truthfully uttered but to be really, truly heard.

The finance sector has no gut. It is not a creature, but a machine whose army of parasitic nanobots are dispatched to suck ordinary people into the bondage of debt. There is nothing inside the most significant global market force but putrefaction. To understand this sector as human or even as truly comparable to any other form of trade is to understand the blood-type of a stone.

The sector is not “inhuman” but it is, inevitably, not human. Thus, it cannot be sorry and even if some of its representatives are truly sorry for the fictitious capital they quite legally write into reality each day, their “sorry” has no value as an utterance. It only has value as a cheque.

Most often, the “sorry” of an institution comes at no cost and sometimes, it brings profit. We could argue that the “sorry” of the Rudd government to Aboriginal people divided from their families was of greatest value to the Rudd government and the nation-state. Even as Rudd uttered “sorry”, he funded future regret. The so-called “emergency response” to a report on child abuse in remote Northern Territory communities was ongoing in 2008 and its work of separating families and estranging people from their most basic rights was work he had approved.

The year after “sorry”, Rudd introduced the BasicsCard, a cashless welfare card that separated Northern Territory supermarket queues into white and black. He may have been sincerely sorry for the apartheid of the past, but he was not faithfully sorry to its present, which was concealed by the myth of apology.

The firm, sector or institution enacts its “sorry”. There is possibly no enduring value in the “sorry” simply said. Just as the finance sector cannot be understood as a form of scaled-up barter, its true “sorry” cannot be the individual apology scaled up. Although, its purpose is the same: to offer reparations at personal cost.

Sorry is, or should be, the hardest and most valuable word for an individual to impart. If it were an easy word, it would require no internal struggle and have no external value when offered, which is its ruddy point.

Still, we can probably expect a future sorry pageant. Bankers will tell us all how sorry they are and they will explain their identical behaviour in a variety of ways. They will not say that their complicity with cruelty is a fact of the financialised present, but they will attribute it to individual failing.

Like Rudd, they may be truly sorry. Like Rudd, they will be more faithful to the preservation of the institution they represent than they are to their regret. Which will be their moral failing, of course, but the inevitable failing of a system that is not merely “too big” to fail those other markets now dependent on it, but too deluded to recognise its central failure.

This is one of many accounts that presage this apology. In asking the question “why do good people do bad things?”, many commentators apply the logic of the personal apology to the institutional sort, and fail, like those institutions, to see intrinsic failure.

Why do good people do bad things? Largely, for the same reason good people have bad debt. It’s a matter of survival, and we can’t be truly sorry for that.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey