Treasurer Joe Hockey says he is "sorry" if his comments that increasing the petrol tax will not hurt the poor as much sound callous, but stresses that he is just pointing out the facts.
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Hockey backlash grows
Labor, the Greens and crossbenchers have taken the Treasurer to task for his comments about low income earners, but Joe Hockey has defended the comments.
Mr Hockey on Thursday continued to defend his comments that because poor people did not own cars or drive as far they would be not be as hard hit by a rise in the fuel excise, blitzing radio stations on the east coast from Perth, where he met Palmer United Senator Dio Wang for budget negotiations.
Mr Hockey, speaking on Sydney Fairfax Radio 2UE, said his comments were backed by the facts.
"The fact of the matter is that I can only get the facts out there and explain the facts, how people interpret them is up to them," he said.
Mr Hockey said Australia Bureau of Statistics show higher-income households pay more in fuel tax.
But Parliamentary Library research shows lower income households pay a higher proportion of their income on fuel tax compared to those better off.
Labor's agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon says the ''North Shore treasurer's'' comments are a particular insult to those in the bush.
''In the bush we lack public transport and most places we go – to shop, to work, to learn, to socialise and even to look for work – are a long way away,'' he said in a statement.
Mr Hockey has been asked if he realised if his comments sounded callous.
"I'm sorry if that's the case but the fact is that the Labor party says that it's an unjust initiative, unfair initiative, higher income people aren't paying enough, well here is an initiative where higher income people pay on average three times the amount of lower income households in the fuel excise," he said.
He has also hit back at Labor's depictions of him as an out of touch ''cigar-chomping Foghorn Leghorn of Australian politics'', saying he has no regrets about being pictured smoking cigars during budget preparations and had smoked them since he was 16.
He said he didn't care about "personality politics" because "you've got to be who you are".
"Everyone keeps talking about how politicians are sometimes phoney, I mean I am what I am," he said.
Mr Hockey said "I'm doing my best for the country" and noted the "conga line of criticism" but cautioned that was "self-deprecating humour" and added "unless someone wants to interpret that as well".
'Boarding school debate'
Nationals Senator, Matt Canavan, leapt to Mr Hockey's defence,hitting out at the ''boarding school'' and ''undergraduate'' debate surrounding the Treasurer's comments.
''I think the hysteria is way over the top, what Joe has said is just stating the facts; there' more hysteria here than you get a Beatles concert,'' he told Fairfax Media.
''If stating the facts creates a difficulty in selling public policy I worry about the future of our debate, he stated as much facts as he was asked to.''
Senator Canavan said he understood the media wanted to ''sell papers'', but said he is ''constantly frustrated how boarding school and undergraduate the debate in this country is''.
And he's revealed himself a fan of Foghorn Leghorn, the fictional cartoon Looney Toons rooster character and declared ''I like cigars too''.
''I don't know what the problem with Foghorn Leghorn is,'' he added.
But some government MPs are unimpressed by Mr Hockey's remarks.
Queensland Liberal Teresa Gambaro took a veiled swipe at the Treasurer’s comments.
''It's always difficult to be the bearer of bad news. The challenge lies not in scaring people, but in showing them there's a way out of Labor’s mess,'' she told Fairfax Media.
Ms Gambaro said the fuel excise increase was projected to cost an average household about 40 cents extra per week but said ''no one should be under any illusion that it's a bitter pill cleaning up the debt Labor always leaves behind'', she said.
Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi described Mr Hockey's comments as a distraction the government does not need.
He said he opposed the increase in the fuel excise because it was a new tax that the Coalition promised not to introduce before its election to government.
He confirmed to Fairfax Media that he has informed the Prime Minister that he would not be voting for the measure, when and if it is put to Parliament. Labor and the Greens are also opposing the measure.
Call to apologise
Labor leader Bill Shorten called on Mr Hockey to apologise.
''Joe Hockey should apologise to Australians for insulting them by saying that you don't have to worry about he tax if you don't drive a car. Joe Hockey needs to come back to earth from planet Hockey,'' he said in Perth.
Senator Ian Macdonald told ABC Radio on Thursday that "you have to have a car whether you're rich or poor . . . regional Australia don't have the alternative of public transport".
NSW Nationals senator John Williams said people in the bush needed cars.
''You have to have a car whether you're rich or poor, you need a vehicle to be able to get from one place to the other,'' he told ABC Radio on Thursday.
''Regional Australians don't have the alternative of public transport or other means of getting there.''
Australian Motoring Enthusiast senator Ricky Muir panned Mr Hockey's comments on Thursday.
"No disrespect to our Treasurer, but I think it shows a bit of a disconnect between Joe and I think, the everyday Australian," Senator Muir told Fairfax Radio.
"The comment in my view is a little bit concerning. If you’re a school leaver, or unexpectedly unemployed, low-to-middle income, you live in a rural, regional or remote area, you do need to use your vehicle and quite regularly, a lot. "
Consumer group One Big Switch argued poor people spend a higher proportion of their income on fuel and live further away, meaning they're hit twice.
A major survey in June showed the biggest average fuel bill in Sydney was in the south-western suburbs, while those in Melbourne's north-east and north-west paid the most for petrol on average.
with AAP, Judith Ireland