Sorry seems to be the hardest word

What is it about some words that makes them more difficult to say than others? After all, a word is only a few consonants strung together around a vowel or two.

It all comes down to intention and meaning. Unless there is meaning and honesty behind a word when it is spoken or written, it really is just a bunch of mixed-up letters.

So what are the hardest words to say? For some people it might be "my shout". For others, especially buttoned-up Kiwis, it might be telling someone "I love you". For many, it is using that five-letter S-word, as in "I’m sorry".

Christchurch residents whose lives were turned upside-down by the devastating earthquakes of 2010-11 and whose world was then, and in some cases still is, made even worse by the bureaucracy and bumbling of their insurers, finally received an apology last week from the new general manager of Southern Response, Casey Hurren.

He told Radio New Zealand the agency had communicated effectively for many claims, "but for a minority of them we didn’t get it right".

Pressed further, he said: "If anybody that [sic] wasn’t treated well during the course of their time and their claim settlement with Southern Response, I would absolutely apologise for that."

Southern Response was established by the John Key National government in 2012 when insurer AMI virtually collapsed under the weight of earthquake-damage claims.

AMI, which insured more than 35% of Christchurch’s homes, did not have enough reinsurance to cover its payouts. So its non-quake work was sold to IAG and Southern Response assumed responsibility for earthquake-damage settlements.

It is now largely defunct, having settled about 48,000 claims. The remaining 200 were transferred to the Earthquake Commission at the end of last year.

Mr Hurren is on a fixed-term contract until August 31 to oversee 30 outstanding High Court cases, as well as the class action involving about 3000 people over allegedly "misleading and deceptive conduct", which Southern Response will appeal in the Supreme Court in March.

The public apology will come as some relief to those who have battled for close to a decade for a fair outcome, or are still battling. But for many it is far too late.

Understandably, many are unmoved by the apology after suffering years of turmoil and sleepless nights. Among them is former Christchurch city councillor and claimant Ali Jones, who told RNZ it failed to go far enough.

"I would have liked to heard [sic] him say they are putting their hand up and are acknowledging that they have handled, managed, assessed thousands and thousands of claims in Canterbury in a woefully deficient way."

She said that was what Southern Response should be doing now and should have done over the past six years.

Ms Jones is absolutely right. Mr Hurren’s predecessors should have managed this far better.

It should never have let its relationship with the community deteriorate to the extent it felt compelled to hire security contractor Thompson & Clark to spy on claimants.

It is unfathomable that a New Zealand government organisation would use such a company to infiltrate and record meetings of claimants under terrific mental strain caused by the earthquakes.

When it comes to an apology, it is always the easiest option for someone new in an organisation to make it rather than the person closely associated with the issues.

Some apologies can be mealy-mouthed, half-hearted attempts, delivered in the wrong tone: "I’m sorry if you were offended" is the classic, with the "if" putting any fault back on the other party.

Why is it so hard to apologise? Unfortunately, many driven mainly by ideas of their importance or power see it as a sign of weakness, rather than one of humility or conciliation.

We think it is a significant step that Mr Hurren has belatedly taken, one that finally shows some humility and acceptance that things should have been handled better.

Nevertheless, the way Southern Response has behaved needs to be an exemplar of just how not to do things the next time something as catastrophic occurs.


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