Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins has hit back at “incredibly hurtful” comments from her former boss, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.
Senator Reynolds called Brittany Higgins a “lying cow” on the same day her former staffer went public with allegations she was raped on a couch in the minister’s office, according to reports confirmed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday.
Mr Morrison said Senator Reynolds was frustrated at suggestions she failed to give proper support to Ms Higgins at the time of the incident.
He said the remark was made in a private office and she later apologised to staff for the outburst.
“She deeply regrets it. They were offensive remarks. She should never have made them. I don’t condone them,” Mr Morrison said.
Senator Reynolds issued a statement earlier, saying she had never questioned Ms Higgins’ account – and that her comments related to subsequent reporting.
“I did, however, comment on news reports regarding surrounding circumstances that I felt had been misrepresented,” she said.
Later on Thursday, Ms Higgins responded with her first public comments on the insult.
“The comments made by Minister Reynolds are incredibly hurtful,” she said.
“I appreciate that it has been a stressful time but that sort of behaviour and language is never excusable.
“It’s just further evidence of the toxic workplace culture that occurs behind closed doors in Parliament House.”
Ms Higgins decided not to proceed with a police complaint about her rape claims in 2019 out of fear she would lose her job as a media adviser.
However, she has recently reinstated her official complaint with the Australian Federal Police.
Senator Reynolds, who is on medical leave following heavy criticism of her handling of Ms Higgins’ allegation, is under increasing pressure to resign.
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie has called for the Minister to quit.
“She’s gone this morning. She needs to resign immediately,” Senator Lambie told Sky News.
“If she’s not coming out denying that, if she’s trying to smooth it over and throw it somewhere else then I think she’s finished. Her career’s done.”
Senior Labor frontbencher Penny Wong said Senator Reynolds needed to explain herself.
“It’s obviously not an acceptable comment and I think the minister needs to respond publicly,” she told ABC radio.
Independent MP Zali Steggall said she was shocked to hear Senator Reynolds used the derogatory term towards Ms Higgins.
“That’s incredibly disappointing and inappropriate of Linda Reynolds and the Minister should know better,” she told the Nine Network.
“It makes her position all the more untenable.”
Three other women have since alleged they were assaulted by the same man who Ms Higgins claims attacked her.
He was sacked as a ministerial adviser because of a security breach on the night of the alleged rape.
- For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 131 114