Australian opposition leader under fire over gaff

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The Independent Online

An Australian political leader came under attack today for speaking what many would consider a self-evident truth - that not everything any politician says can be believed.

Tony Abbott, leader of the conservative opposition Liberal Party, stunned many political observers in his explanation during a television interview of a backflip on his month-old promise to raise no new taxes if his party is voted into power.

He now promises to levy a new company tax to fund paid maternity leave if he becomes prime minister at elections late this year.

Mr Abbott, a 52-year-old former seminarian, drew a distinction between what he sometimes says "in the heat of discussion" and "an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark.

"Which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is (sic) those carefully prepared, scripted remarks," Mr Abbott told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"All of us, when we're in the heat of verbal combat, so to speak, will sometimes say things that go a little bit further," he added.

The remarks were described in the media today as a gaffe that could haunt Mr Abbott's election campaign in the months ahead.

The Courier Mail newspaper described the explanation as "an almost fatal admission: only believe what I say when I say you can".

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper saw his comments as "an extraordinary admission" during what The Age newspaper said was a "damaging interview".

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government, which has lost a commanding lead over Mr Abbott's coalition in recent opinion polls, reacted by branding the opposition leader "Phony Tony".

"For the first time in Australia's history, we've got a political leader saying: 'Don't trust what I say. Get it in writing," Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner told ABC.

But Mr Abbott's colleagues defended his comments as a mark of his honesty.

"The thing about Tony Abbott is he's a straight shooter," senior Liberal politician Joe Hockey said.