SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott came under fire on Wednesday for winking when he took a call on air from a distressed pensioner who said she worked on a sex phone line to pay the bills.
Mr Abbott has been on a media blitz to try and sell his first budget since coming to office last September. It axed health and education spending while tightening welfare benefits to help bring the deficit under control.
The budget has been widely slammed as too harsh, with thousands of students marching in protest around the country Wednesday and Mr Abbott forced to fend off furious criticism from members of the public.
"Mr Abbott, I would like to ask you if you would like your mother or your grandmother to be in my situation?" asked one caller to a Melbourne radio station, called Gloria.
"I'm a 67-year-old pensioner with three chronic, incurable medical conditions, two life-threatening.
"I just survive on around AU$400 a fortnight after I pay my rent and I work on an adult sex line to make ends meet. That's the only way I can do it," she said.
Video of the call showed Mr Abbott winking at the presenter when the woman revealed she worked on a sex line, sparking a social media backlash and prompting Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young to call him "a total creep".
His office said the wink was to signal that he was happy to proceed with the call.
"What do you suggest I cut out, Mr Abbott? Food, electricity, firewood, Christmas and birthday presents to my grandchildren?" the woman added.
"Or should we all just die and get out of your way?"
Mr Abbott responded that "I absolutely understand that you're doing it tough", before Gloria interrupted by saying: "But you don't give a stuff, though, do you?"
Another caller named Stella, a life-long supporter of Mr Abbott's Liberal Party, accused him of treating the public like idiots.
"I accept if you need to do a harsh budget. What I cannot accept is myself and other intelligent voters being condescended to by politicians who won't answer a straight question... it makes us feel that you're treating us like idiots," she said.
Mr Abbott, whose popularity has plunged since the budget was announced last week, has accused the Labor opposition of leaving the country's finances in a mess and said hard decisions had to be make for the good of Australia.
"My job is not to curry popularity. My job is to do what's right for the country," he said.
Mr Abbott added: "You see, we had a fire, and the budget is the fire brigade. And sure, sometimes the fire brigade knocks over a few fences in order to put out the fire. But if you've got a fire you've got to put it out."
As well as federal cuts of AU$50 billion to health and AU$30 billion to education over the next decade, a new tax will be levied on high-earners, the pension age will rise to 70 by 2035 and people will have to pay a modest fee to visit the doctor.