Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticised for telling an audience he is “blessed” not to have children with disabilities.
Mr Morrison made the remark during a town hall debate ahead of Australia’s election, after being asked a question by a woman with an autistic son.
Opposition MPs and others said the comment was upsetting, with one saying “every child is a blessing”. Government MPs said the context of the comment had been lost in the backlash.
During Mr Morrison’s debate with Labor leader Anthony Albanese, the woman – identified as Catherine – asked about funding for a disability support scheme.
“I’ve been told, to give my son the best future, I need to vote Labor. Can you please tell me what the future of the [National Disability Insurance Scheme] looks like under your government?”
The prime minister began by asking Catherine for her son’s name. After she replied it was Ethan, Mr Morrison said: “Jenny and I have been blessed, we’ve got two children that don’t – that haven’t had to go through that.” “And so, for parents with children who are disabled, I can only try and understand your aspirations for those children.”
He went on to discuss how the scheme helped people “live their best possible life” while adding it still had “faults” to address. But his use of “blessed” drew a backlash. Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, who has an autistic daughter, said it was “the kind of response they get all the time”.
She told Network Seven: “Certainly my daughter enriches my life and my partner’s life every day.” Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John, who uses a wheelchair, said: “I am done with this government dismissing and disempowering disabled people.”
Former Australian of the Year Grace Tame tweeted a photo of herself looking sideways at Mr Morrison, of whom she’s a frequent critic. She wrote: “Autism blesses those of us who have it with the ability to spot fakes from a mile off.”
On Thursday, Mr Morrison defended his words as being “in good faith”. “But I was just simply trying to say… I haven’t walked in your shoes, Catherine. I’m not going to pretend to say that I understand it as well as you do.”
Government Senator Hollie Hughes, whose has an autistic son, said people were “missing the point of the substantive issue here if they want to focus on one word”. “It’s not looking at us as families or our children as a burden – it’s a recognition that we do have additional challenges,” she said.
“This is why the disability community struggles to make constructive gains. Because there’s lying underneath it a significant, almost permanent rage machine,” she added, speaking about the challenges faced by parents and carers to get support.
Australia’s election is on 21 May. Opinion polls were proven unreliable at the last election, but currently show the opposition is slightly favoured to win.