Defence minister Linda Reynolds has not denied calling Brittany Higgins a “lying cow” on the same day her former staffer went public with allegations she was raped.
Ms Higgins was working as Senator Reynolds’ media adviser in 2019 when the rape is alleged to have occurred and the minister is facing scrutiny for her handling of the complaint.
The Australian newspaper reports Senator Reynolds made the “lying cow” comment on February 15 in front of staff members, including public servants who were on secondment from the Defence Department, in an open part of the office.
The newspaper says she later addressed her staff and apologised for the remark which she told them had been made during “a stressful time” for everyone in the office.
Senator Reynolds on Wednesday night responded to the media report by releasing a statement saying she had never cast doubt on Ms Higgins’ account of her alleged sexual assault.
However Senator Reynolds did not outright deny calling Ms Higgins a lying cow.
“A report in The Australian attributed some remarks to me regarding the very serious allegations made by my former staff member, Ms Brittany Higgins,” Senator Reynolds said in the statement.
“I have never questioned Ms Higgins account of her alleged sexual assault and have always sought to respect her agency in this matter.
“I did however comment on news reports regarding surrounding circumstances that I felt had been misrepresented.
“I have consistently respected Ms Higgins’s agency and privacy and said this is her story to tell and no one else’s.
“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.”
NSW independent Zali Steggall said the latest report made the Defence minister’s position even more untenable.
“I was rather shocked,” Ms Steggall told the Nine Network on Thursday.
“That’s incredibly disappointing and inappropriate of Linda Reynolds and the minister should know better. I think it makes her position all the more untenable.”
Senator Reynolds is currently on medical leave and was admitted to hospital as a ‘precautionary measure” late last month on the advice of her cardiologist as she faces sustained pressure over her handling of Ms Higgins’ rape complaint.
Ms Higgins last week made a formal complaint to the Australian Federal Police the alleged assault which she says happened in March, 2019 inside the ministerial wing of Parliament House.
Senator Reynolds, who was defence industry minister at the time of the alleged assault, has defended how she and her office responded to Ms Higgins allegations when she became aware.
“In terms of the actions taken by my then chief of staff and by me in the days and weeks that followed Brittany’s alleged assault, we at all times followed the advice of ministerial and parliamentary services and the Department of Finance, as was appropriate,” Senator Reynolds told parliament last month.
“I have full confidence that my then chief of staff and I at all times acted in what we believed were the best interests of Brittany.”
Senator Reynolds says she did not tell Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Ms Higgins’ allegations of rape at the time.