Senior government ministers have rejected claims that vital decisions in the defence sector are on hold due to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds extending her leave.
Senator Reynolds on Sunday extended her medical leave until April 2, meaning she will miss the next sitting of parliament and a week of gruelling Senate estimates hearings.
She has been under pressure over her handling of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who publicly alleged she had been sexually assaulted by a colleague in the minister’s office in 2019.
The case is now being investigated by police after Ms Higgins lodged a formal complaint.
The defence sector is facing a number of complex issues including the future of the $90 billion submarine program and the Afghanistan war crimes investigation.
Former Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon said while he had great empathy for Senator Reynolds, there were big national security challenges at play.
“We need a defence minister at work,” he told the Seven Network on Monday.
“We have enormous changes happening in our region, she hasn’t handled the report into our special forces well at all, she hasn’t really stood by our troops.
“We have projects like the submarine program, excuse the pun, sinking.”
Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said she was sure her ministerial colleague would be back as soon as her doctor gave her the green light.
“She’s in the process of having her condition stabilised by new medication and I’m sure Linda will be back at work as and as she possibly can,” Senator Ruston said.
Acting defence minister Marise Payne said work was continuing in the portfolio area.
“I am very well supported by the Department of Defence and the ADF. We will continue with the hard work that is ahead of us as a government,” Senator Payne told ABC radio.
“I look forward to welcoming Senator Reynolds back as soon as she’s able to return.”
A review has been launched, headed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, into the way in which complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault are handled within Parliament House.
It is expected the final outcome will be a recommendation for a new independent complaints-handling body.
Former independent MP Kerryn Phelps said a “system correction” was needed to ensure complaints could be properly reported and dealt with.
Dr Phelps said a change in political culture would also help.
“It can be done different, where politics doesn’t have to be a blood sport, where politics can be a contest of ideas and ideals,” she told Sky News.
Senator Ruston said she had personally found the environment in Parliament House to be “particularly respectful”.
“But that doesn’t underestimate the trauma that many people have come forward and expressed.”