SYDNEY — Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott apologised Tuesday after saying the government was inexperienced when it comes to having babies, a comment seen as a dig at childless Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Abbott, recently savaged by Gillard as sexist and a misogynist, made the remark when referring to cuts in a baby bonus scheme announced as part of the government's mid-year budget review.
He said scaling back the payment to cut costs and return the budget to surplus revealed a lack of "experience" within the government of raising children.
In response the unmarried Gillard, who was once described by a member of Abbott's Liberal party as "deliberately barren", said: "I think Mr Abbott can explain what he meant by that line."
Trade Minister Craig Emerson also questioned what Abbott, who has three daughters, meant.
"If he's talking about the treasurer (Wayne Swan), well he's got several children; I've got several children," Emerson said.
"So what's he really on about to suggest that this government isn't experienced at having children and therefore with the costs of children?"
Abbott accused the government of "hyperventilating" over the issue and said he meant no offence. However, he offered to apologise.
"If she (Gillard) wants to take offence of course I'm sorry about that. And if she would like me to say sorry, I'm sorry," Abbott told Fairfax radio.
"Mate, I think a lot of people are very ready to read far too much into entirely innocent comments," he added. "This was as innocent as a comment can be."
Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said the ruling Labor party was being over-sensitive.
"This is pathetic. This whole rhetoric is pathetic," he said.
"If we're at the point now where we can't refer to the government and families in the same breath, surely the debate has got to an absurd point."
Gillard, the nation's first woman leader, won praise around the world for her comments on Abbott being sexist during a parliamentary speech a fortnight ago, which saw her popularity surge in an opinion poll released Monday.
Abbott said Tuesday that people wanted to "move on" from the debate.
"If I've got a criticism of the government I'm criticising it because of its record, not because of the gender of any of its members," he said.
In its mid-year economic review on Monday, the government announced some Aus$16.4 billion in savings over four years to help return the budget to surplus in 2012-13, including cuts to the baby bonus scheme.
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