Scott Morrison has defended his intemperate language in parliament against Christine Holgate last year, saying he had to protect taxpayers’ money and Labor was calling for her resignation.

Pressed to respond to the former Australia Post CEO’s accusations of bullying, Morrison said he regretted the distress his strong words had caused her but he did not see the need to apologise, or to contact Holgate personally.

However former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking on Network Ten, said this had been “horrible, misogynistic bullying”, and Morrison should apologise. He said Holgate should be reinstated.

Holgate, after appearing before a Senate inquiry, told the ABC on Tuesday Morrison’s October 22 parliamentary performance was “one of the worst acts of bullying” she’d ever seen. She urged him to call her and apologise.

After she revealed she had given Cartier watches to high performing executives, Morrison told parliament she had been instructed to stand aside pending an inquiry and if she didn’t want to do that, “she can go”. In less than a fortnight she had left her job.

The Prime Minister, who is in Western Australia, said his language on what had been “quite a heated day” in parliament, had been “very strong”.

“And I see that that has caused some very, very strong reactions from Christine. And it hurt her deeply. And that was not my intention. And so I regret that,” he said

“But at the same time, the issue here was how taxpayers’ funds were being used in a government-owned company,” Morrison said.

“And that’s how this issue began. It was about Cartier watches being handed out to well-paid executive for doing their jobs.

“And that was not something that my government supported”.

As prime minister he had to stand up for “standards”, he said.

Morrison rejected Holgate’s claim that gender was a factor in how she was treated. “This was about the issues of taxpayers’ money. And no, I don’t accept that there are any gender-related issues here at all”.

Explaining his unwillingness to actually apologise Morrison said, “I think acknowledging distress has been caused is appropriate”.

He said “any remaining issues sit between Christine Holgate and the chair” of Australia Post, Lucio Di Bartolomeo.

Asked whether he would call Holgate – he did not speak to her on October 22 or afterwards – Morrison said, “ I don’t think there’s a need for that. The chairman and the former chief executive, that’s where the employment relationship existed and that’s where those issues are being addressed”.

Holgate says issues around her contract remain unresolved.

Asked if the chairman should resign – which Holgate has called for – Morrison said, “There’s nothing before me which suggests that”.

Nationals senator Matt Canavan has said Di Bartolomeo should resign. “He has presided over this debacle” . But Di Bartolomeo told Canavan during Tuesday’s hearing he would not resign.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told Sky there was no government plan to split off and sell the parcel delivery part of Australia Post.

This followed Holgate’s evidence that the original version of a report to the government from consultants BCG put forward reform paths including divesting the parcels business.

She told the inquiry the executive team “pushed back on the need and the ability to cut back the services and jobs as they proposed and the significant disruption a parcels divestiture would cause”. The final version of the report, which is unreleased, was modified.

On another front, Morrison on Wednesday confirmed he will be meeting former ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleged she was raped by a colleague in a ministerial office in 2019.

He said he didn’t know where the meeting would take place – Higgins has expressed reservations about meeting in parliament house. “I know there are a range of issues that she’s relayed to my chief of staff that she would like to raise and I look forward to hearing her,” he said.

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