Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologised for the offence caused by saying he felt “blessed” to have children who did not have disabilities.
He sparked a major backlash with the comment during Wednesday night’s first leaders’ debate.
“I meant no offence by what I said last night but I accept that it has caused offence to people … and deeply apologise for any offence it caused,” he said in Brisbane on Thursday.
“I wasn’t trying to imply that I could first-hand understand the challenges people face in those situations.
“I was seeking to respect the challenges they face, not the opposite. I would hope that people would accept that at face value.”
Earlier, Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott, a champion wheelchair tennis player, added his voice to the fallout from Mr Morrison’s remarks.
“Woke up this morning feeling very blessed to be disabled – I reckon my parents are pretty happy about it too,” he tweeted.
“Feeling sorry for us and our families doesn’t help. Treating us equally, and giving us the choice and control over our own lives does.”
Mr Morrison made the comment after he and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese were asked about the future of the National Disability Insurance Scheme by an undecided voter, Catherine Yeoman, who has a four-year-old autistic son.
“[My wife] Jenny and I have been blessed, we’ve got two children that don’t – that haven’t had to go through that,” he said.
“So, for parents with children who are disabled, I can only try to understand your aspirations for those children.
“Then I think that is the beauty of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.”
Labor’s finance spokeswoman Katy Gallagher said the comment was insensitive and hurtful to parents and children with a disability.
“As the parent of a wonderful daughter with autism, I was really upset by that comment. I found it really offensive and quite shocking,” Senator Gallagher told the Seven Network on Thursday.
“People who have a disability, children with autism, it is a kind of response they get all the time that people are blessed not to have what they have when in actual fact, every child is a blessing.”
Mr Morrison’s comments showed a lack of connection with everyday people, Senator Gallagher said.
“It may be a clumsy comment but they still are insensitive comments and can offend people. Maybe he can front up today and explain what he meant by that,” she told Sky News.
Mr Morrison first responded during an interview on Sydney radio on Thursday, saying it was “poor form” to twist comments made in good faith into something political.
“I was just simply saying that. It’s tough. And I’m grateful that there is these hardships that I and Jenny haven’t had to deal with,” he told 2GB.
“Part of the battle we are up against is that our children are less or not as good as others and that simply isn’t the case.”
Later, Mr Morrison said he had apologised to Alcott directly. He had also spoken to Ms Yeoman.
“The point Dylan makes are right. It’s about equality and it’s about access and it’s about being able to live life on the same terms as everyone else,” he said.
Ms Yeoman told the Brisbane Times on Thursday that “it was a poor choice of words”. She also said Mr Morrison had not answered her original question about funding cuts to the NDIS.
Senior Liberals also defended Mr Morrison on Thursday. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the comments were about not having to deal with the complicated NDIS bureaucracy.
“I think he was expressing the type of sentiment many Australians would understand,” Senator Birmingham told the ABC.
Liberal senator Hollie Hughes, who has a son with autism, also defended Mr Morrison’s comments.
“To be honest, I did not think of anything of them at all. I certainly didn’t take anything negative away from it,” she told the ABC.
Senator Hughes said the anger had been misplaced by people who were against Mr Morrison.
“I know there were days, very early on when my son was younger, that were really, really hard. I didn’t feel particularly blessed.”
Later on Thursday, Mr Morrison sought to turn the focus back to border policy, saying Mr Albanese couldn’t be trusted on boat turnbacks despite Labor saying it supported the policy.
“When it mattered he didn’t believe in it, he didn’t do it and he opposed it,” he said.
Campaign spokesman Jason Clare defended Labor’s position on boat turnbacks, saying good policy should be adopted regardless of which party was in government.
“This is good practical policy development,” Mr Clare said.
“You look at what works and you adopt it.”
Mr Albanese, who campaigned on the NSW south coast, sought to switch the national security debate to the Coalition government failing to act on a security deal between the Solomon Islands and China.
“Where has Peter Dutton turned up? The people of the Pacific … have all seen the video of him talking about how funny it is that countries are going to go underwater,” he said.
“China is more forward-leaning. We all accept that. The difference is how do you respond to it? Do you respond to it by trying to play domestic politics? Or do you respond to it in a strategic way that makes a difference?”
Labor had even been stronger in its response to Chinese aggression, including its opposition to an extradition treaty, Mr Albanese said.