Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey has apologised for the “hurt” caused by his comments about the poorest people’s use of cars.
Mr Hockey has been under fire for suggesting the Government’s proposed changes to the fuel tax will hit higher income households harder, as poorer people “don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far”.
After days of criticism, Mr Hockey went on radio Friday afternoon to say: “I am really genuinely sorry that there is any suggestion at all that I or the Government does not care for the most disadvantaged in the community.”
“I am sorry about the interpretation. I am sorry about the words,” he said.
He said the analysis that poorer Australians are less likely to be affected by an increase in fuel taxes because they do not drive as much was “obviously insensitive”.
It is an embarrassing backdown for the Treasurer, who has stood firm against a chorus of complaints that he was “arrogant” and “out of touch” with the community.
Yesterday Mr Hockey declared he was doing his job by presenting “facts” and “reality” from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
“I don’t care about that commentary, I care about dealing with the facts and ensuring that we have a strong economy,” he said.
Forced to apologise? ‘Dead wrong’
His remarks came hours after Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed in on the controversy early after returning from a whirlwind trip to the Netherlands, London and the United Arab Emirates.
Earlier, Mr Abbott offered his “full support” to Mr Hockey, but rebuked the Treasurer over the car comments, saying: “Well, plainly, I wouldn’t say that.”
There was also a lack of support from Leader of the Government in the House Christopher Pyne, who passed up six opportunities on Channel Nine to support Mr Hockey’s judgment, but instead defaulted to backing the Treasurer’s general performance.
Despite his colleague’s comments, the Treasurer said he was not asked to issue the apology.
“Anyone suggesting that I was asked to do that … is just dead wrong,” he said.
“I thought about it this morning and I thought ‘I don’t want to hurt people’ and the words were clearly hurting some people.”
Bowen ‘a little cynical’ about apology
Opposition Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen was cynical about Mr Hockey’s apology.
“Words are one thing but it’s the actions and measures in Hockey’s budget that are really hurting low and middle income Australians,” he said.
“These weren’t accidental words – the Treasurer did repeated interviews backing them in, calling those who criticised his comments ‘hypocrites’.
“He also furnished modelling which he said justified his words – so forgive me for being a little cynical about an apology more than 48 hours after the event.”