Politicians should apologize more

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on the importance of saying “sorry” when you’re in the wrong.  The need to apologize exists whether you are totally responsible for a debacle, or if you own only a small part of it.  Some jurisdictions have even instituted apology legislation, which means saying sorry cannot be used as a confession in legal situations.  This accommodates the human need to see an appropriate level of atonement and accountability in order to start the healing process, rebuild trust and move forward after a disaster.

I realize that finding politicians who don’t take responsibility for their actions is like shooting fish in a barrel but there’s a situation unfolding in Ontario right now which has truly taken blame-slinging to a disgusting new low.  In short, the Toronto Star recently revealed outrageous spending irregularities at ORNGE, the province’s publicly-funded air ambulance service and the ensuing investigation has unearthed a laundry list of questionable practices including the use of taxpayer dollars to renovate a high-end office building, establish a complex web of shell companies to shield itself from government scrutiny, send executives to foreign schools for expensive MBAs, loan the CEO $1.2 million for a house purchase and much more.  After a forensic audit, $25 million of taxpayer funds is still unaccounted for so the Ontario Provincial Police has been called in to investigate.

It’s painfully clear that the Ministry of Health, which oversees ORNGE, was asleep at the switch and even when warned about potential problems, chose to ignore the evidence.  Now that the truth is out and the police are involved, many are calling for the Minister of Health, Deb Matthews, to resign.  She has refused which is typical, but more astoundingly, has yet to take even a shred of accountability for letting this happen on her watch.  Consider her statements:

“There’s lots of blame to go around”
“People who chose to take money out of the pockets of taxpayers”
“You can’t legislate trust”
“We were misled”
“I am sickened when I see people who were in a position of trust, abuse that trust”

If she was using these statements to talk about her role, however detached, in the debacle, the words would be appropriate but sadly, she is not.  She has used them, and countless others, to deflect blame away from herself and her team. In a rare turn for a politician, she has also claimed that she inherited the mess from her predecessor, a fellow Liberal who actually set up the controversial air ambulance service.  When confronted with this, his refusal to take accountability was even more profound.  Among his quotations:

“I feel like I have been scapegoated”
“It’s just too convenient to lay the blame at the feet of politicians”
“the system is always set up to throw politicians under the bus”

While it’s true that the Ministry of Health is huge, has thousands of employees and myriad sub-committees and spin-offs, the reality is, the buck stops with the person in charge. I ran a business for ten years and even though it was much smaller than our Ministry of Health with its thousands of employees and myriad spin-offs, I was not always able to oversee every decision.  As a result, sometimes mistakes were made and clients were disappointed.  But, as an owner of the company, I understood that ultimately I was in charge and it was my role to apologize, even if the entire transgression had gone on without my knowledge.  While you can choose to privately reprimand employees who breach organizational ethics or just plain screw up, it’s unacceptable to publicly blame someone else when a program you are responsible for, goes awry.

No one expects perfection from elected officials but everyone expects at least a show of contrition.  That provides a starting point for moving forward and rebuilding trust.

If Deb Matthews hopes to emerge from this relatively unscathed (and it may be too late), she needs to make a simple statement along the lines of, “While I cannot oversee every single thing that happens in my portfolio, I’m sorry for the role I played in this and I hope you’ll have faith in me as we work to clean up this mess.”  Is that so impossible to consider?

I have never been involved in politics, I’m not affiliated with any of our political parties and this blog post is not an attack on the Liberal party.  So, I’m not aware of the popular theory on how these scandals should be handled but I’m wondering if there’s a “never apologize under any conditions” ethos that exists among political advisers and if so, it needs to go.

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