Newly re-elected Liberal MP John Alexander has apologised for saying he knocked back an offer for a disabled parking permit after a tennis injury because he had "some pride", but says people are being "mischievous" in their interpretation of what he meant.
The former Australian tennis champion made the poorly timed joke during his victory speech in the Bennelong by-election yesterday.
The smile on the face of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was standing alongside him at the time, seemed to falter as he made the gag — as did the laughter from the crowd.
Mr Alexander was recounting a conversation he and the Prime Minister had had with a man on the campaign trail, who had helped build a tennis centre that the now Liberal MP worked at.
"When I thought my tennis career was finished, because I hurt my back, I started coaching there at one point, and then the back got better," he said.
"I was actually eligible for the disabled sticker on my car! And then I got to about number 14 in the world.
"The doctor at the time said, 'You have eligibility for a disabled sticker'. I said 'I still have some pride'.
"That was before I entered politics! I digress."
Mr Alexander defended his comments today.
"What I was saying was that nobody who doesn't have the right, or really deserves to have such a parking sticker, should take it," he told reporters in Sydney.
"You can be mischievous, but if anybody's been offended I apologise. But the point was that no-one should take a disability sticker who shouldn't have it, or deserve it, or really need it."
He argued that few politicians had done as much as he had in supporting and working with the disability sector.
'Stupid and offensive'
Earlier, three-time Paralympic gold medallist Kurt Fearnley weighed in, saying Mr Alexander was "kidding" himself if he thought that language was appropriate.
External Link: Kurt Fearnley tweet: "I’m not one to get offended, and I’m not offended. Cause I choose not to be offended by the ignorant. But I spend my life convincing disabled kids that they are awesome. Then they hear that. You’re kidding yourself if you think that language is ok."
"I spend my life convincing disabled kids that they are awesome. Then they hear that," he tweeted.
New Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, who is in a wheelchair, last night joined the calls for an apology.
"Those who use the ACROD card (like me) have nothing to be ashamed of," he tweeted.
External Link: Jordon Steele-John tweet: ""The doctor suggested I apply for a disability sticker and I said 'no! I still have my pride' – @JAforBennelong Those who use the ACROD card (like me) have nothing to be ashamed of. Those who peddle the idea that disability=weakness, do. Apologize. Now. #BennelongVotes #auspol"
Labor's disability spokeswoman, Carol Brown, said Mr Alexander's comments "could only be interpreted as offensive to people with disability".
"To suggest that Australians who require a disability parking permit have anything to be ashamed of is repugnant," Senator Brown said in a statement.
"It's not funny — it's stupid and offensive."
Disability advocates also said they were disgusted by the joke.
"It's really shocking to think that someone in such a position would think that it's an embarrassment," said Serena Ovens from the Physical Disability Council of New South Wales.
It is not the first time Mr Alexander's comic timing has caused concern.
Earlier in the campaign, a video was unearthed from the 1990s of the tennis star making a joke about rape.
He apologised for that comment too.
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