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Using political apologies

October 29, 2013 — 

Karen Sharma, MPA student at the U of M , won Silver Prize in the National Student Thought Leadership Award for her paper, “Mea Maxima Culpa: The Political Apology as an Instrument of Public Policy in Canada.”   The award was given to her at the national 2013 Institute for Public Administration in Canada (IPAC) Conference.

A copy of her paper can be read here in PDF form.

Here is her paper’s introduction:

Mea Maxima Culpa: The Political Apology as an Instrument of Public Policy in Canada

Given the recent proliferation of official state apologies in Canada, it may be surprising to some that the apologia politica1 is a rather new phenomena, marking what certain authors have described the dawn of an age of expiation (see Olick and Coughlin,2003: 37-38; Barkan and Karn, 2006: 25; Howard-Hassmann and Gibney, 2008: 2-4). Indeed, the federal government has issued seven official apologies over the past two and a half decades in an effort to come to terms with the wrongs of its past, beginning in 1988 with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s apology for the internment of Japanese Canadians in British Columbia during World War II, and lately in 2010 with Stephen Harper’s apology to the families of the victims of Air India Flight 182. This recent proliferation should not be mistaken, however, for unanimity over the nature of political apologies. Indeed, whether apologies should be delivered and how, by whom, where and what they include, and most importantly perhaps, what work they perform, have proven to be contested notions, effectively demonstrated in all of Canada’s recent apologies.

The first section of this paper seeks to describe the political apology through the identification of its defining elements and a chronicle of its social and political work. This section aims to demonstrate how the political apology operates schismatically to simultaneously achieve and undermine its conciliatory and strategic objectives. My description of the political apology will draw upon Canada’s history of official political apologies, which include the 1988 apology to Japanese Canadians for the government’s policy of internment and deportation during World War II; the 1990 apology to Italian Canadians for their internment during World War II; the 1998 Statement of Reconciliation to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples for Canada’s policy of forced removal and residential schooling; the 2006 apology to Chinese Canadians for the Chinese head tax and exclusionary legislation; the 2008 apology to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples for its policy of residential schooling; the 2008 apology to Canada’s South Asian community for the Komagata Maru incident2; the 2010 apology to the families of the victims of Air India Flight 182 for the Canadian government’s institutional failings in responding to the tragedy; and the 2010 apology to Canada’s Inuit community for their relocation to the High Arctic.

Although it remains environed in controversy, the political apology has scarcely appeared in theory and research on the Canadian public policy process. Indeed, much of the literature examining the instruments of public policy neglects to embrace the apology within their typologies. This begs the following questions: what is the place of the political apology within the study of public policy, and more specifically, is the political apology an instrument of public policy? Commencing from these questions, the second section of this paper will root the political apology within the typological frameworks used to understand public policy instruments, while recognizing the way in which these systems of categorization are complicated, and necessarily expanded, through its inclusion.

While defining, categorizing and understanding the work that policy instruments perform is critical to the policy process, so too is their evaluation. In The Tools of Government: A Guide to New Governance, Lester Salamon argues for the assessment of policy instruments against five criteria, namely their effectiveness, efficiency, equity, manageability and political feasibility and legitimacy (2002: 22). While a full evaluation of the political apology is beyond the scope of this paper, I will provide some concluding thoughts toward the assessment of this policy instrument. In particular, I will focus on the extent to which the political apology achieves its conciliatory objectives (i.e. its effectiveness) and the legitimacy of its selection as a tool for public action. Building on questions of legitimacy, I will also argue that the political apology’s mixed results may be related to issues of problem definition, that is the notion that political actors are unclear as to the issue that this tool is intended to address. Through these preliminary gestures toward an evaluation of the political apology, I hope to move toward the identification of the normative precepts necessary for more meaningful future incarnations of the political apology.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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