CANBERRA – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott acknowledged Thursday that he made a mistake by winking with a smile in a talk radio studio while listening to a phone sex worker complain on the air about welfare cutbacks.
The gesture, captured Wednesday by a television camera and broadcast prominently in national news bulletins, has proved an unwelcome distraction for Abbott, who is selling unpopular budget cutbacks criticized as betraying his conservative government’s lack of empathy for the poor.
A woman who identified herself as Gloria, a chronically ill 67-year-old grandmother, called Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in Melbourne on Wednesday to ask Abbott how she was supposed to pay an extra 850 Australian dollars ($785) a year in medical expenses that she estimated the budget measures would cost her.
Abbott winked and smiled after she told him that she survived on a pension and worked for a phone sex service “to make ends meet.”
He later explained that he had been reacting to a smile from the show’s host, Jon Faine, varying from the prime minister’s office’s explanation that Abbott had been signaling to a producer that he was willing to answer the question rather than have the call cut short.
“Obviously it was an interesting call from someone who had an interesting story,” Abbott told Perth radio station 6PR later Wednesday. But after a storm of criticism on social media and from political opponents, Abbott conceded on Thursday that he had erred.
“I shouldn’t have done it. I should have been more focused on the caller and less focused on the interviewer,” Abbott told the Nine Network television. “Mistakes are always regrettable . . . and I will do my best having made a mistake yesterday to make none today.”
A woman identifying herself as Gloria called ABC again on Thursday, condemning Abbott’s wink as “slimy” and “sleazy.”
It was a sentiment shared by Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator for the minor Greens party, which has vowed to block some of the government toughest budget measures. “Rather than taking seriously her concerns of poverty and illness, he gave a wink and a smirk, and all I have to say to the prime minister on this is: What a creep. What a total creep,” she said Wednesday.
After Abbott acknowledged his mistake, Hanson-Young on Thursday called for Abbott to step down.
The criticisms come as opinion polls showed this week that Abbott’s 8-month-old coalition government is now less popular among voters than the center-left Labor Party opposition, after the release last week of the least popular deficit-cutting budget Australia has seen in at least 18 years.