Australia’s defence minister, Linda Reynolds, has signalled she is prepared to apologise to her former staffer Brittany Higgins after calling her a “lying cow” in front of staff in February this year.
The fresh statement from Reynolds on Friday followed news on Thursday that Higgins had engaged the services of a defamation lawyer after the derogatory observation was published by the Australian.
Reynolds said in a statement that “in response to a letter from Ms Higgins’ lawyers yesterday afternoon, discussions are now underway through our legal representatives in an effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible, with any resolution to include an apology”.
“In the meantime, I want to express how deeply sorry I am for these remarks and for any hurt and distress they have caused,” the defence minister said.
After the story was published attributing the negative comment to Reynolds, Higgins told Guardian Australia the comments were “incredibly hurtful” and “never excusable”.
But Scott Morrison defended Reynolds on Thursday. 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 Reynolds’ 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: “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 exists behind closed doors in Parliament House.”
On Thursday Higgins made it known she had engaged the services of the 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 said 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 asked for 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”.
On Thursday 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 at that time: “I refer you to the statement provided by the minister last night.”
Reynolds released a statement on Wednesday night conceding that 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.
The statement said: “A report in The Australian attributed some remarks to me regarding the very serious allegations made by my former staff member, Ms Brittany Higgins.
“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.”
Reynolds remains on medical leave.
Fresh questions about Reynolds’ judgment come after the attorney general, Christian Porter, outed himself on Wednesday as the unnamed cabinet minister who had been accused of a rape in 1988 by a woman who died in the middle of last year.
Porter categorically denied that he raped a 16-year-old friend in 1988, when he would have been 17, and declared he would not stand down as attorney general, suggesting that if he did “there would be no rule of law left to protect”.
“Nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened,” the attorney general said. He said he intended to remain in his portfolio but would take a short break to tend to his mental health.
Morrison remains under growing pressure because of the Higgins matter and the historical rape allegation. The prime minister faces sustained calls for an independent inquiry into the rape allegation against Porter from actors inside and outside the parliament.
Morrison also found himself rebuked by the Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, on Wednesday. Tame, a survivor of sexual assault and an advocate for fellow survivors, was asked by journalists to address the prime minister’s admission he needed his wife to understand the allegations raised by Higgins.
Morrison said his wife, Jenny, had “clarified” the issue for him. “She said to me, ‘You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?’” the prime minister told the media last month, after Higgins went public with her allegation of rape.
Tame, who could not directly address the allegations that have consumed the parliament, was succinct in her response. “It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience,” she told the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday. “And, actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience.”