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Sorry/not sorry

Maclean Kay: John Horgan is savvy enough to know his “don’t blow it” comments backfired. What’s surprising is ordinarily he’d also be savvy enough to apologize and move on.
Not moving on. (BC Government Flickr)

For 48 hours, John Horgan and the NDP have suffered a constant barrage of bad press. The surprising thing isn’t that the Premier slipped up – because everyone slips up – but that he and his team have set aside their proven ability to handle slipups deftly.

On Monday’s public health announcement, Horgan remarked that “the cohort from 20 to 39 are … quite frankly, putting the rest of us in a challenging position – do not blow this for the rest of us.”

The reasons why this didn’t land are now much-discussed and well-established. But the reaction has been visceral enough that even the UBC NDP president, a former election candidate, felt compelled to call for an apology, a remarkable display that will certainly be career-limiting in the short term. (This would not be quicky forgiven by any Premier’s Office.)

It didn’t have to happen like that. It’s easy to say “just don’t make mistakes,” but that’s not useful or realistic advice. Even the savviest politicians slip up, and when they’re as constantly visible as a premier, there’s much less chance of it passing unnoticed.

What’s astonishing is the stubborn and steadfast refusal to apologize – because they’ve seen firsthand that it can work.

In last year’s TV leaders’ debate, Horgan (along with Andrew Wilkinson and Sonia Furstenau) was asked about white privilege and racism. His “I don’t see colour”  answer also backfired spectacularly.

In an election campaign, this was dangerous. Probably not potentially fatal – I don’t think BC was ever going to upset the apple cart at that point of the pandemic – but certainly risked at least a handful of seats.

Whether his own idea or at verbal gunpoint, Horgan acted quickly, apologizing that same night. And while it still wasn’t a campaign highlight, it diffused much of the negative reaction.

That was just seven months ago. This time, Horgan and the NDP have not only refused to apologize, but doubled down.

First, two of the youngest NDP MLAs, Bowinn Ma and Brittny Anderson, released videos largely echoing Horgan’s comments. That didn’t work. The next day, Horgan did a series of radio interviews saying the idea was to “catch young people’s attention.”

That also backfired.

Later that day, Horgan sent a series of tweets attempting to clarify his clarification. This time, the tone was gentler, the message more measured – an improvement, but probably too late. And crucially, he still didn’t apologize, or even express regret.

This is baffling. Again, not that Horgan misread the public, but because he and his team are smart enough to see they’re rushing down the wrong track here.

Personal apologies are tragically underused in politics. First, because leaders are understandably reluctant to admit error. And much of the time, they’re right to think the media and public will focus on another incident or story in a day or two.

But in cases like telling the group that has suffered most and waiting longest for vaccines “don’t blow it,” things aren’t always forgotten, but fester. Apologies often work in the media, short-circuiting the second wave of bad stories, because there’s nowhere new to take it. More broadly speaking, people get apologies. They’re relatable and humanizing. This is even more true in the social media age; not one person reading this hasn’t expressed something awkwardly on Twitter or Facebook, or otherwise had something come out wrong.

Again, Horgan and his team have proven they’re smart, and they’ve seen this approach works. Why they’re choosing to endure hit after hit remains a mystery.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca