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Tony Abbott gets a grilling

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is castigated by callers on talkback radio, including a struggling pensioner who works on an adult sex line, as he defends the Coalition budget.

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''A wink,'' quipped the English lawyer Joseph Ritson in 1793, ''is as good as a nod to a blind horse.''

That was a while before television cameras, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a winker of some renown, might wish the moving picture had never been invented.

Abbott began what would prove a torrid day in Melbourne sitting in the interrogation chair before the ABC's famously combative Jon Faine, who drew barely a breath before accusing the Prime Minister of indulging, through the budget, in political cowardice.

Tony Abbott.

Something in the eye: Tony Abbott winks as he listens to caller Gloria.

If that did not persuade Abbott that he might have been better off slugging it out with furious students in Geelong (a trip avoided on the advice of his security detail) he was about to find himself in more turbulent waters.

Faine opened the lines to callers, and one of them identified herself as Gloria of Warburton. ''Hi, Gloria,'' offered the Prime Minister.

''Mr Abbott, I would like to ask you if you would like your mother or your grandmother to be in my situation?''demanded Gloria.

<i>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</i>

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

''I am a 67-year-old pensioner, three chronic incurable medical conditions - two life-threatening. I just survive on about $400 a fortnight after I pay my rent and I work on an adult sex line to make ends meet.''

It was about then that Abbott suffered a case of ocular - and possibly judgmental - malfunction.

At the mention of Gloria working for an adult sex line, he winked at Faine, and the merest flicker of a smirk flitted across his lips.

Faine said nothing and Gloria was far away on her phone, blind to the gesture. But a television camera was running and the captured moment was soon leaping from TV screen to social media and going viral on mobile phones and computers.

With Twitter red-hot with indignation and worse, Abbott's minders in Canberra were soon rushing about trying to reassure anyone who would listen that the prime ministerial wink was nothing but an unspoken signal to Faine that the Prime Minister was happy to continue responding to Gloria's call.

Abbott later told Fairfax radio that he was simply reacting to Faine's facial expression.

''Jon was smiling at me and I responded to him.''

Meanwhile, things between Gloria and the Prime Minister didn't improve as she asked to know what she should cut from her life - electricity, firewood, birthday presents for the grandchildren? - to deal with higher medical costs foreshadowed in the budget. ''Or should we all just die and get out of your way?''

Mr Abbott, a volunteer firefighter, was soon talking to a caller named Rhiannon, struggling for a suitable metaphor to explain why his budget was so tough.

''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.''

He was, of course, unaware his chat with Gloria, complete with wink, had already, to some of his critics, tossed fuel on the flames.