Embattled Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has apologised to a former Liberal staffer for describing her as a “lying cow”.
Senator Reynolds, who had been threatened with defamation action over the statement to her staff, said she was “deeply sorry” for the comments.
“I want to express how deeply sorry I am for these remarks and for any hurt and distress they have caused,” she said on Friday.
Senator Reynolds made the remark to her office staff in February, amid the fallout from Brittany Higgins’ allegations she was raped on a couch in the Minister’s office.
Senator Reynolds confirmed she had received a letter from Ms Higgins’ lawyers.
“I have never questioned Ms Higgins’ account of her alleged sexual assault and have always sought to respect her agency in this matter,” she said.
“Discussions are now under way through our legal representatives in an effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible, with any resolution to include an apology.”
On Thursday, Ms Higgins said the comments were “incredibly hurtful”.
“I appreciate that it has been a stressful time but that sort of behaviour and language is never excusable,” she said.
“It’s just further evidence of the toxic workplace culture that occurs behind closed doors in Parliament House.”
The Minister remains on medical leave after her cardiologist recommended time off when she was under immense pressure over her handling of Ms Higgins’ complaint.
She also drew support from Cabinet colleagues on Friday, with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham both backing her.
Mr Dutton rejected calls for Senator Reynolds to quit over the remark.
“Linda genuinely felt hurt by the fact she thought she had provided every assistance possible obviously over a period of time,” Mr Dutton told the Nine Network on Friday.
In Adelaide, Senator Birmingham dodged a question on whether Senator Reynolds was setting a good example with her characterisation of an alleged rape victim.
“It’s for Linda to resolve that apology to the satisfaction of Ms Higgins, and for Linda and all arms of government to do as we’ve committed, as we have always been willing to do, and that is to cooperate fully with police investigations into the alleged rape and assault of Brittany Higgins,” he said.
“It was always Linda’s willingness and intent to cooperate fully, and I know it continues to be the case.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the comments were offensive, and he did not condone them. However, on Friday, he said Senator Reynolds would return remain as Defence Minister.
“She’s currently on leave and will return to her duties when her leave is finished. She maintains my confidence,” he said.
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles urged the Senator Reynolds to apologise directly to Ms Higgins.
“The Prime Minister himself should be making an apology to Brittany Higgins,” he told Nine.
“He ducks at every moment and Linda Reynolds is under pressure because basically, the Prime Minister has hung her out to dry.”
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie said the leaks from Senator Reynolds’ office showed the Minister must relinquish the defence portfolio.
“When you’ve lost the respect of your own people and they’re going out to the media, I think you’re gone,” she told ABC radio.
She said the sexual assault allegations engulfing federal parliament had further eroded public trust in politics.
“It nearly brings tears to my eyes that people are saying ‘what is going on here?’,” Senator Lambie said.
“It is absolutely disgraceful.”