Abbott Winks Over Sex-Chat Pensioner Amid Budget Backlash

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has come under fire on talk-back radio from Australian voters concerned last week’s budget will damage their quality of life.

In a clip shown on national television, Abbott is seen winking and smiling to a radio host after a caller who described herself as a 67-year-old pensioner with chronic health conditions said she was forced to work on an adult sex line to pay bills. Another said that in labeling tax rises as levies, “you’re treating us like idiots.”

With polls showing support for his Liberal-National coalition slumping in the wake of the May 13 budget, Abbott has defended measures imposed by Treasurer Joe Hockey to rein in a deficit and has denied he’s reneged on pre-election pledges. Thousands rallied against the spending cuts and tax increases on the weekend, with criticism coming from welfare groups, health advocates and members of his own party.

“This has been one of the worst reactions by voters to a budget in living memory,” said Haydon Manning, an Adelaide-based politics professor at Flinders University of South Australia. “Any gaffs by Abbott and the government have the potential to further derail the narrative of responsible government that Abbott is pushing.”

Student Protests

Hundreds of students protested in capital cities today against proposed cuts to education funding that they say will result in higher fees and higher interest payments on loans. In Melbourne, demonstrators scuffled with police near the steps of Victoria’s state parliament, with some burning a copy of the federal budget.

After being elected in September vowing to put Australia back on the path to a surplus, Abbott last week announced cuts to spending on welfare and the public service. A 2 percent levy will be applied to those earning over A$180,000 a year, creating a backlash for Abbott who promised ahead of the election he wouldn’t surprise voters with new taxes.

State leaders who face reduced health and education funding that wasn’t flagged before the election criticized the government in a May 18 statement, saying the cuts were “unacceptable” and would cause “immediate and significant impacts on the hospital system.”

Amateur Boxer

Abbott, 56, a Rhodes Scholar and former amateur boxer, was accused during his term as opposition leader of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism” by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard in an October 2012 speech to parliament.

The prime minister’s gesture to the radio host in response to the pensioner’s call today was intended to “indicate he was happy to proceed with the call,” his office said in an e-mailed statement.

“The camera only captured one side of this interaction, so it is difficult to see the true context,” the statement said. Abbott was “by no means making any statement or judgment around the caller’s work circumstances.”

A Newspoll conducted after the budget and published in The Australian newspaper May 19 showed Abbott dropped behind opposition Labor party leader Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister for the first time, with 34 percent support to Shorten’s 44 percent. The coalition government slipped 2 points on a two-party preferred basis to 45 percent, trailing Labor on 55 percent, the poll showed.

Consumer Confidence

Consumer confidence fell to its lowest level since August 2011, prior to the central bank’s most recent easing cycle, after the budget. An index of consumer sentiment plunged 6.8 percent to 92.9 in May from a month earlier, Westpac Banking Corp. and the Melbourne Institute said today.

“The sharp fall in the index is clearly indicating an unfavorable response to the recent federal budget,” Westpac Chief Economist Bill Evans said in a statement. “Respondents were particularly concerned about the impact of the budget on their own finances.”

In a separate radio interview today, Abbott mooted the possibility of tax cuts in a second term. The next election is due to be called by 2016.

“I would like to be in a position to offer tax cuts in our next term,” he told Neil Mitchell on 3AW radio. “At the moment I’m certainly not guaranteeing that or promising it, but the whole point of getting the Budget under control now, Neil, is so that we can give tax cuts in the not too distant future.”

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