Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is facing calls to resign after she responded to, but did not deny, reports she referred to former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins as a "lying cow" after she spoke out about her alleged rape in Parliament House.
The Australian newspaper reported Senator Reynolds made the comment in the open part of her office and was heard by several staff members, including public servants on secondment from the Department of Defence.
She reportedly made the comment on 15 February - the same day Ms Higgins went public with allegations she was raped by a male colleague inside Senator Reynold's office in March 2019, when she was 24 years old.
Recent stories about sexual assault and abuse are having a 'huge effect' on survivors, counselling services say. Source: Supplied
In a statement on Wednesday evening, Senator Reynolds did not specifically address whether she had used that term in reference to Ms Higgins.
She said she had "never questioned Ms Higgins' account of her alleged sexual assault and have always sought to respect her agency".
"I did, however, comment on news reports regarding surrounding circumstances that I felt had been misrepresented," she continued.
"I have consistently respected Ms Higgins's agency and privacy and said this is her story to tell and no one else's.
"Ms Higgins's 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."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday confirmed he had spoken to Senator Reynolds about the comment, which he described as "offensive", but resisted calls for her to be stood down.
He said the comment was made in her private office, during a "stressful week", and she hadn't intended for it to be made public.
"She has already spoken to her staff and apologised for those comments, so she knows those comments to have been inappropriate and wrong," he told reporters.
"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."
He also reiterated Senator Reynold's statement that the comment was in reference to commentary about the "levels of support provided" to Ms Higgins' not the allegation of sexual assault.
The revelation is the latest blow to the embattled Minister, who has come under sustained pressure over , with federal politicians now calling for her resignation.
"I think it makes her position all the more untenable," Independent MP Zali Steggall told the Nine Network. "And these comments, if correct, would show a real issue in terms of appreciating the importance and the bravery for Brittany Higgins in coming out.”
Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie said her Senate colleague needed to "resign immediately" because her "career's done".
"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," she told Sky News.
Meanwhile, senior Labor frontbencher Penny Wong said it was "clearly not an acceptable comment" and urged Senator Reynolds to publicly explain herself during an interview on ABC Radio.
But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg defended his party colleague, stating her failure to outright deny making the comment did not amount to confirmation she said it.
"Those comments that you are referring to have been reported but that's not what is contained in Linda Reynolds statement," he told ABC News.
"If you look at her statement, it makes it very clear that at no stage has she challenged Brittany Higgins' version of events."
Ms Higgins has recently reinstated her official complaint with the Australian Federal Police, while three other women have since alleged they were assaulted by the same man.
Senator Reynolds had known about the alleged rape for more than two years but did not inform Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has said he only became aware of the allegations last month.
Last week, Senator Reynolds was and forced to cancel a much-anticipated speech at the National Press Club - where she was expected to be pressed on her handling of the alleged incident.
She is on medical leave until next week.
If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit . In an emergency, call 000.
Like this story? Here's where else you can find SBS News content and follow us:
SBS News website: Save our website as a favourite.
SBS News newsletters: Get the latest delivered to your email inbox by .
Apple News: Follow the SBS News channel .
Twitter: Follow us at
Instagram: Follow us at
YouTube: Subscribe at
TikTok: Follow us at
Reddit: Join us at
SBS also publishes news in 68 languages online and on radio. Find your language at .