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Everyone is saying sorry. If only they actually meant it


September 30, 2023 — 5.00am

September 30, 2023 — 5.00am

Qantas chairman Richard Goyder couldn’t be stopped from apologising for operational matters such as the unlawful sacking of workers and the sale of tickets for ghost flights. At this week’s Senate inquiry, Tony Sheldon suggested Goyder was only apologising for getting caught. Goyder apologised for – deeply regretted – everything except his board’s own work, which was to reappoint and handsomely reward the manager who conducted those operations.

In Victoria, Daniel Andrews confessed that he was “worse than a workaholic”, something he could not change. But when it came to something he had agency over – backing out of his commitment to serve the term he’d promised voters last year – he had no regrets. “I changed my mind.”

Clockwise from top left: Dan Andrews, Eddie Jones, Alan Joyce and Rupert Murdoch.

Clockwise from top left: Dan Andrews, Eddie Jones, Alan Joyce and Rupert Murdoch. Credit:

Meanwhile, in France, the Australian rugby coach Eddie Jones was hastening to take accountability for mistakes his players made on the field. When it came to accountability for his own work – kooky selections, eroding those players’ confidence, and secretly chasing a job in Japan – Jones was less candid. His boss, Hamish McLennan, was also sorrier for other people’s mistakes than for his own.

Contrition for every section of the paper. Only the weather bureau didn’t say sorry, but it never does.

Times past, you could not drag bosses or leaders to the table to say sorry. Now, you can’t stop them. Sorry was the hardest word when Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote their song in 1976. Now, sorry is a performance in a show trial. “What else can I be?” a confused Kurt Cobain asked in the confused 1990s. “All apologies?” By 2017, Demi Lovato sang the answer in her hit: Sorry Not Sorry.

Sixteen years ago, the Australian parliament said sorry to Indigenous people for two centuries of dispossession. Two weeks from now, we’ll see how far that word goes. Sorry, just not that sorry.


An apology is no longer an assumption of responsibility. It is often the opposite, a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rupert Murdoch, as ever, wrote the commandments and handed down the holy tablets. Remember the “most humble [sic] day of my life”? After this performative repentance in 2011 for the disgusting and illegal phone-hacking by his employees, Murdoch evaded consequences. Twelve years on, after some of those employees were held to account by having to go to prison, Murdoch’s accountability amounts to a fabulous increase in personal wealth and the ultimate prize awarded this week, a Retirement Not Retirement with $220 million of shareholders’ gratitude slipped into the pocket.

For interest’s sake, I did the old-fashioned thing and looked to the Macquarie Dictionary’s definition of “accountable”, which took me in a brief circle to “liable to being called to account”, or required to “explain or justify actions”. Accountability doesn’t mean required to apologise, particularly when the apology is for show and the actions you are apologising for are someone else’s.

The contemporary euphemism for accountability is “owning” your actions. They’re just about the only thing at News Corp that Rupert didn’t own. Indeed, to say sorry for an act can be the opposite to ownership, more like a religious confession or a shedding of skin so that you don’t have to go on living with it.


Frustrated by this false front of accountability, the public often narrows its response to an outraged demand for punishment. Goyder must go, they say. Jones and McLennan must go. Andrews has already gone, so his successors must now be punished in his absence. (Murdoch never goes.) The clamour for removal also turns a contest of ideas into a contest of retribution-versus-defiance. Hence the counter-clamour of Trumpism: you can’t get rid of me, you can’t tell me what to do.

Cancel culture and a lust for sackings and resignations might temporarily salve frustration, but they are no more a true holding to account than the sorry-not-sorry performance. Alan Joyce was sorry, but he wasn’t held to account; in fact, he walked away from his actions with a different kind of accounting, in the multi-millions. The damage to his reputation won’t last as long as that to Qantas.

Politics promises accountability through elections. Every three or four years, political leaders are held to account in the straightforward manner. Between times, they can be held to account by their own party. Yet even this win-lose outcome is seldom a resolved form of accountability. Scott Morrison “stepped down” as prime minister. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull did not lose office but were brought down by the Murdoch media. Tony Abbott and John Howard, held to account by voters who took away not just their governments but their own seats, used this merely as a transition from elected to unelected office, from the business of having to explain or justify their actions to the performance of accountability in books and speeches.

The Greeks, as usual, had different ideas. Their miscreants were not held to account by cancellations, sackings or resignations. Sisyphus, a liar and murderer, was consigned to rolling a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down again – for eternity. Prometheus, who stole from the gods, was chained to a rock where his liver was devoured by an eagle each day, only for it to grow back overnight and get eaten again until, having suffered enough, he was freed by Hercules.

The Greeks believed that accountability had to mean more than just early retirement. Sacking was too easy a way out. Sisyphus and Prometheus had to keep turning up. I think about this when I think of Michael Pezzullo, the public servant exposed by this masthead as a big-swinging political dick. Surely a move-on and a payout for Pezzullo is not accountability but an escape from it? Isn’t it more fitting that such a person should have to keep on chairing meetings where everybody in the room sees his actions, as my colleague Jenna Price described them, as “self-aggrandising, embarrassing, revealing of the man’s hubris, or as the young people might say, he definitely thinks he’s a bit good”?

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit: Simon Letch

Finding proper accountability often falls into the uncomfortable space between individual malfeasance and systems failure. For instance, the morning after it is rid of Jones and McLennan, rugby in Australia will still wake up with the same systems failure, which is that the code is like an evening TV chat show: it’s popular in Britain and other places but here we have better things to watch and do. Dismissing the individuals delivers the heads on stakes that the public craves, and an illusion of accountability, but the underlying problems remain. Might accountability be better served if those at the top had to continue living with the cupidity or stupidity of their decisions?

I don’t argue that the Greek solution is the best in every case – see Rupert, above, who delegated someone else to roll the boulder and furnish the eagle with its daily liver – and some leaders need to be removed before they can do more damage, but we have to be able to imagine better ways of holding them to account than simply rubbing them out or giving them the chance to apologise their way out of it.

As a form of accountability, transparency is hard to beat. If Pezzullo knew his words would go public, if Goyder knew that those ghost flights and unlawful job cuts would be exposed, if Jones knew his Japan secret would not remain secret …


My great-aunt used to say, “Before you commit any action, ask yourself if you would want it on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper?” A lifetime of emotional constipation for me, but for those in public life and public service it should be asked, asked again, and kept alive. Transparency makes power accountable (except Donald Trump, for whom transparency is just another form of publicity). It’s no coincidence that one of Pezzullo’s private pleasures was to lie in bed at night dreaming up new ways to restrict the media. Surely the first step to accountability is greater transparency.

There are ways to keep leaders accountable other than just the cycle of blame-dismissal. If we do not nurture these other ways, we will become the Sisyphus of the story, condemned to reliving familiar dramas, thwarted by different faces but the same mouths still staying a step ahead of accountability with their showtime sorries and their scripted evasions.

Malcolm Knox is an author and regular columnist.