Former ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins’ lawyer has demanded that defence minister Linda Reynolds publicly apologise for calling Higgins a “lying cow”.
Last month Higgins alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a colleague in Reynolds’ office in 2019, prompting a number of inquiries.
On the same day, Reynold’s had described her former employee as a “lying cow” in front of staff members, including public servants who were on secondment from the Department of Defence, according to The Australian. The minister reportedly apologised to staff for the comments, which she said were made during “a stressful time”.
Reynolds issued a statement on Wednesday evening to address the issue, arguing that she “never questioned” Higgins’ allegations.
“I did however comment on news reports regarding surrounding circumstances that I felt had been misrepresented. I have consistently respected Ms Higgins’ agency and privacy and said this is her story to tell and no one else’s,” she said.
“Ms Higgins’ allegations are very serious and that is how they must be treated to ensure her legal rights are protected. I welcome her decision to progress this matter with the Australian Federal Police.”
A law firm representing Higgins on Thursday said Reynolds’ “derogatory statement” was “highly defamatory” of their client, and demanded an apology.
“It is particularly malicious in view of the assault on our client which took place in your office,” it wrote in a letter.
“We are instructed to demand that you issue an immediate and unequivocal public withdrawal of your comments and apology to our client for the hurt and distress caused.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended Reynolds, arguing that while the remarks were “inappropriate and wrong”, they were said while she was under “significant stress”.
“I’m sure that all of you have found yourself, at a time of frustration, perhaps saying things you regret,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“She deeply regrets it. They were offensive remarks. She should never have made them. I don’t condone them. But what matters is that we continue to address the substance of the issues here, as we are. I’m looking forward to the process which is being set up to get underway.”
Higgins has said Reynold’s comments were “further evidence of the toxic workplace culture that occurs behind closed doors in Parliament House”.
That culture has come under increased public scrutiny in recent weeks, culminating with allegations that attorney-general Christian Porter raped a woman in 1988, which he has denied.