Too often they're used as easy way out of a mistake
The Labour Party's leader need make no apologies for taking a holiday with his family last week. The Prime Minister was doing the same. Leadership is hard work and political leadership is particularly demanding on family time. The leaders are about to go into an election campaign where their personal performances are likely to be crucial to the result. Both were sensible to take some time off while Parliament was in recess for the school holidays.
The anonymous Labour Party member who complained about Mr Cunliffe's break to a Sunday newspaper was looking for excuses for the party's latest fall in the polls. The leader takes most of the blame but not because he went skiing at Queenstown. His apology to a domestic violence seminar, "for being a man", was probably enough to send the party's support into a tailspin.
Back at Parliament this week, Mr Cunliffe said he might not have taken a holiday if he had realised how bad the polls would be, and he regretted the way his apology for male violence had "bounced".
Amid all this chest-beating, the Prime Minister declined to offer an apology to Tania Billingsley whose alleged sexual abuser was allowed to leave New Zealand under diplomatic immunity. Clearly an apology from him would be decent. Ms Billingsley has since made her name public and expressed forceful views on the issue, but she was wronged by officials for whom the Government is answerable. John Key prefers to await an investigation of the officials' handling of the case but that will not change what happened to the criminal complaint.
Apologies have become a confused commodity in politics. Too often these days they are the easy way out of a mistake, an admission of an error that has not hurt anyone except the person making the apology. Too often, they are demanded by opponents looking to score a political point or by reporters needing a new angle. An apology that has to be requested is devalued, and usually hedged with the phrase, "If anyone has taken offence at what I said".
To suggest the offended are unduly sensitive is ungracious and renders the apology false. The offender is not sorry and concedes nothing. It would be more honest to say so.
Too often, too, an apology has become a rhetorical device. That was its purpose in Mr Cunliffe's domestic violence speech. Much as he might regret it now, the gender apology was not an incidental, throw-away remark. It was not "quoted out of context" as he now claims. It was the intended punchline of his speech. He wrote it personally by all accounts and delivered it with heavy emphasis and furrowed brows. It made the television news, as he must have hoped it would.
To Mr Key and many others, the apology sounded insincere. But it could have been sincere, Mr Cunliffe might really think domestic violence is a male characteristic. However, the rest of his speech recognised that it was unmanly to resort to violence against a woman, which suggests the apology was disingenuous.
The lesson for all politicians is that the apology needs to be restored to a place of gravity. Apologies should not be given or demanded lightly. They should be made only when genuine. The Prime Minister has possibly drawn this lesson when he withholds an apology to Ms Billingsley that he could easily make for political safety. Since he was not personally to blame for her case an apology could feel insincere. If that is the way he feels it is better to say nothing. Silence is at least more honest.