‘Sorry doesn’t fix it,” my long-gone mother used to say. I’ve always agreed with that little dictum, which no doubt was passed down from her Victorian-era parents. The best way to express remorse, my mum believed, was by correcting mistakes or fixing the damage you’d caused.

As a word, “sorry” doesn’t usually pack much punch. At some time in the past half-century, “sorry” has replaced “excuse me” as a polite way of squeezing past people in a bar, breaking into a conversation or pretty much anything else that requires a modicum of politeness.

So, let’s get this word sorted. The etymologists say “sorry” comes from the Middle English word “sārig”, which means to feel or express grief, pain or distress. “Sorrow”, by the way, comes from the early Germanic word “sore”.

Even though “sorry” and “sorrow” were formed in isolation from each other, they’ve evolved to be related.

And “sorry” gets used a lot. A study in 2010 found that Canadians’ use of “sorry” had ballooned to such an extent that United States visitors now see it as a confusing but impressive form of politeness. A newspaper article of the time described the habit of apologising for every petty perceived offence as “polite to the point of parody”.

Much the same can be said of Australians, who have generally foregone the use of “excuse me” and replaced it with a simple quick shot of “sorry”. It does the trick for a multitude of occasions, from an accidental physical contact in a crowded place to knocking a glass of water over a colleague’s desk. Oops, sorry. No harm done, really, move on.

Officialdom much prefers the softer word “regret” when it screws things up (which happens far more often than it does in business). “Regret” intimates they’re too important and big to be anything more than a bit embarrassed.

But “sorry” does have to do some heavy lifting from time to time, as in 2008 when then-prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to Australia’s First Nations people for the treatment they had suffered at the hands of successive generations of officialdom. The phrase “we say sorry” followed every admission of official racism and overreach. In such a situation, “sorry” meant a lot more than it usually does.

Which brings us to early February in Canberra, when the Insurance Council of Australia and some leading insurers fronted a parliamentary inquiry into the devastating east coast floods of 2022. The committee of MPs had heard plenty of emotional evidence from unhappy claimants, and the pollies were keen to hear the industry saying “sorry”. So it did, with Insurance Council Chief Executive Andrew Hall apologising on behalf of the sector.

Yes, the insurers’ reaction to the floods was inadequate in many ways, as you might expect when entire population centres large and small find themselves underwater, with everyone needing immediate assistance and support at the same time.

Insurers’ ability to rapidly roll out relief to their customers will always be measured by the scale of the catastrophe, what each policy actually covers, teams’ inability to reach affected areas promptly, and the availability of repair crews. It’s a bit hard to change that reality. Some have tried, but in large-scale events, none have succeeded.

But the proximate cause of the floods – in this case government laxity in allowing towns to grow on floodplains, even when they knew the dangers, and the lack of realistic mitigation measures – are just as important in the overall story of the east coast floods. And who’s going to apologise for governments?

It’s generally accepted in the industry that customers traumatised by a mass catastrophe – as compared with your kitchen being gutted by a cooking mishap – are unlikely to be patient or understanding with what will inevitably be a slow return to normality.

So, should everyone in insurance be sorry property insurers couldn’t match the expectations? And should we accept the Insurance Council apologising for everyone? Of course not. But it has become a pattern in such inquiries for big business to apologise for whatever shortcomings they’re accused of and promise to do better next time. These inquiries involve a panel of not-all-that-clever politicians, most of whom seem to see an apology as a requirement of appearing.

Yes, insurance leaders should be concerned, uneasy, perturbed, worried, upset, bothered, disquieted or even anxious about their companies’ individual efforts in the aftermath of a major tragedy. They have plenty of room for sympathy and compassion, too. But sorry?

Apologies are only needed when you have done something wrong. And falling short of unrealistic expectations isn’t wrong. If you’re saying sorry just to defuse a nasty confrontation, you’re not sorry, or sorrowful. You’re just going along with the pantomime. That’s why it’s time for the politicians who demand apologies from business leaders to lay off the grandstanding and switch their focus to the true purpose: working with business leaders to find solutions.

Cyclone Insurance