Was it an apology?
On Thursday, the Prime Minister said: "I'm sorry that we haven't been able to achieve the marks that we had hoped for at the beginning of this year - of course I am."
The word "sorry" is there - but does that amount to an apology for the handling - or mishandling - of the vaccine rollout?
The day before, he had resolutely refused to use the "S word" - even when a radio host spelt it out for him. "What does this spell: S, O, R, R, Y?" the radio interviewer asked Mr Morrison - to no avail.
But on Thursday, the "sorry" was there - and headlines duly trumpeted that the PM had apologised. The hounds were sated.
#Breaking: Scott Morrison has apologised for the government's failure to meet targets in the vaccine rollout.— 10 News First (@10NewsFirst) July 22, 2021
“I'm sorry that we haven't been able to achieve the marks that we had hoped for at the beginning of this year. Of course I am.” #COVID19#auspolpic.twitter.com/KWCPYVZfP2
But it wasn't quite an apology, according to John Hewson, leader of the Liberals from 1990 to 1994.
"It doesn't look good when Morrison refused to say the word but then said a lukewarm 'sorry'," he says.
He thinks an apology is only convincing if the apologiser takes responsibility for a mistake - rather than just expressing regret (what's sometimes called a "non-apology apology", of the "I'm sorry if you were offended" variety).
"It's got to be a sincere apology and it's got to go to the detail of what they are sorry for."
According to Sue Cato, who has advised politicians and the heads of some of Australia's biggest companies on their public relations, a good apology would have been: "I'm sorry I've disappointed people. It was never my intention. My intention was to get this right."
She thinks the S word can feature: "Politicians hate the word 'sorry', but the electorate appreciates honesty and the strength to admit error. 'Sorry' is not a dirty word."
But it needs to be said early.
"One of the problems this federal government has is that they take so long to apologise. They press the bruise. An apology which is too late looks like it was a forced apology, and that takes the potency out of it."
She also thinks the electorate is increasingly sophisticated and sceptical. Ministers are no longer on a pedestal - voters have seen what they imagine are the inner workings of politics through TV shows like The West Wing. "They wonder if an apology is about polling," she says.
Ms Cato's advice is: apologise if things go wrong, but do it early. Don't have it forced out of you. A good, convincing apology means:
- Acknowledging the problem
- Showing you understand the problem
- Showing why it won't happen again
- Explaining how you are going to fix it.
Do leaders ever apologise?
It's very hard to find an out-and-out clear apology where a leader takes personal responsibility for a mistake.
President Kennedy didn't quite apologise for the disastrous attempt to invade Cuba in 1961, but he did say, "I'm the responsible officer" (and his poll ratings rose).
Ronald Reagan was mealy-mouthed in 1987: "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
And there have been Australian national apologies, like Kevin Rudd's to the Stolen Generations.
On October 22, 2018, Mr Morrison gave a national apology to victims of institutional child sexual abuse.
"We must be so humble to fall before those who were forsaken, and beg to them our apology. A sorry that dare not ask for forgiveness. A sorry that dare not try and make sense of the incomprehensible or think it could. A sorry that does not insult with an incredible promise. A sorry that speaks only of profound grief and loss. A sorry from a nation that seeks to reach out in compassion into the darkness where you have lived for so long."
But those national apologies weren't personal apologies. They were collective.
"Never apologise. Never explain," is falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, and also to Donald Trump.
But apparently it was originally coined in the 19th century by one Benjamin Jowett of Oxford University - though John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon did say "Never apologise, mister, it's a sign of weakness."
Either way, spin doctors wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of headlines about ministerial failure and climbdowns if the dreaded S word is uttered.
On this reasoning, whatever ordinary people might think they prefer, the reality of politics means John Wayne was right: "It's a sign of weakness."
"What works against an apology and saying sorry is the media's desire to blow it up into a big issue, rather than treat it as part of civic discourse," according to Amanda Vanstone, a Liberal senator from 1984 to 2007 and a high-profile Howard government minister.
Professor Frank Bongiorno also cites "gotcha reporting" for the reluctance to apologise.
"To ask, 'Will you apologise?' is, of course, to suggest that you should," he said.
"Politicians try to avoid apologies because they prefer to keep vague who has actually been responsible for a stuff-up, spread the blame around as far as they can (to other levels of government, their own staff, other ministers, public servants, unions, business, media, advisory committees, regulatory authorities, foreigners, inner-city elites, Twitter, even ordinary citizens), and fear their saying sorry will be used against them in the future.
"Apologies also suggest weakness and politicians mainly like to look strong. It's unclear what voters think of any of this kind of thing."
A thought experiment
Imagine: Mr Morrison walks to the cameras and says: "I'm really sorry. I made a big mistake. I want to apologise. I can't say sorry enough."
Would the Prime Minister's standing in the eyes of voters rise or fall? Would the media praise him or fall on his mistake like a pack of hounds? Was John Wayne right?