Defence Minister Linda Reynolds reportedly described Brittany Higgins as a "lying cow" after the former Liberal staffer went public about a rape allegation against an ex-colleague.
In front of several staffers on February 15, Senator Reynolds made the remark while speaking in an open space in her office where she could be heard by others, including public servants from the Department of Defence, The Australian reported.
The report claims she later apologised to staff for the outburst, saying it had been "a stressful time".
In a statement released on Wednesday in response to the report, the senator did not deny the "lying cow" comment, but said she had "never questioned" Ms Higgins' allegations.
Senator Reynolds said she made her comments in relation to other details in news reports which the defence minister believed had been "misrepresented".
"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 her 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' 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."
Linda Reynolds hospitalised
Senator Reynolds has come under extreme scrutiny about her handling of the complaint, taking indefinite leave after being admitted to hospital on the advice of her heart doctor. She was discharged on Friday.
The minister was due to give a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra last Wednesday, but cancelled hours before.
Ms Higgins said she genuinely hoped the minister was okay and wished her all the best with her recovery.
"Let's just hope that from this whole horrible situation there will actually be some fundamental reform to the MOP(S) Act for vulnerable staff and improvements to the workplace culture in Parliament House," she tweeted after news of Senator Reynolds' condition.
The act regulates how MPs and senators' staff are employed.
Ms Higgins says she was sexually assaulted by a male colleague inside Senator Reynolds' office in 2019.
The defence minister has known about the alleged rape for more than two years, but says she did not inform the prime minister to respect Ms Higgins' privacy and welfare.
An independent review into the workplaces of parliamentarians and their staff has been launched, and counsellors will soon be made available at Parliament House.
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