Former government staffer Brittany Higgins says Linda Reynolds referring to her as a “lying cow” is “incredibly hurtful” and is threatening to pursue legal action if the defence minister does not apologise.
Scott Morrison was forced on Thursday to defend the besieged defence minister after a news report revealed she had referred to her former staffer Higgins as a “lying cow”.
The prime minister said the utterance was made in the heat of the moment, in a private setting.
The Australian reported that Reynolds had made the remark in her office in front of current staff on 15 February. The newspaper reported that the derogatory observation was made in the open part of the office, and that staff later expressed concern about it. Reynolds later apologised to her staff.
Higgins has alleged she was assaulted in Reynold’s ministerial office on the night of 22 March, 2019 by a more senior colleague. She made a police complaint shortly after but withdrew it in April of that year. Higgins has said she withdrew the complaint because she was concerned pursuing it would end her career in political staffing.
Higgins has reactivated her police complaint and has been interviewed to give her account of events. While Reynolds has shut down questions about the aftermath of the alleged assault on the rationale that she wants to respect Higgins’ privacy, her former staffer has relieved her of that obligation in the hope questions will be answered.
Higgins told Guardian Australia on Thursday the remark by her former boss was “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 exists behind closed doors in parliament house”.
Higgins has engaged the services of lawyer Rebekah Giles, who specialises in reputational risk. Giles contacted Reynolds on Thursday demanding an apology.
In a letter sent to the defence minister seen by Guardian Australia, Giles said: “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.”
The letter says that the “derogatory statement, in which you refer to our client as a member of the animal kingdom, and declare her to be untruthful, is highly defamatory of our client’s good character and unblemished reputation”. It adds: “It is particularly malicious in view of the assault on our client that took place in your office”.
The prime minister said on Thursday morning that he did not condone the comments, but he asked or understanding for Reynolds, imploring people to think about comments they have made in what they believed to be a private setting.
“It’s been a very traumatic several weeks for many people,” he said.
“People directly involved by these events who are our primary concern. But equally, there have been others who have been drawn into this.
“They’re human beings. They say things that sometimes they deeply regret.
“I’m sure that all of you have found yourself, at a time of frustration, perhaps saying things you regret.
“And I would simply ask you, given the comment was made in a private place, that you offer the same generosity to how you perceive something you might have said, and perhaps apply the same standard to Linda Reynolds who, at the time, was under significant stress.
“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.”
Morrison said Reynolds was not making the comments in relation to Higgins’ allegations, but regarding subsequent comments “about the levels of support provided”.
Guardian Australia asked Reynolds’ office whether the minister would apologise to Higgins and retract the comments in light of possible legal action. Her spokesperson replied: “I refer you to the statement provided by the minister last night.”
Reynolds released a statement on Wednesday night conceding she made comments about “news reports regarding surrounding circumstances that I felt had been misrepresented” in the wake of Higgins’ rape allegation becoming public, but did not deny she had made the derogatory remark.