Allegations of bullying and harassment at the Australian army’s Sydney University regiment have been referred to the inspector general of the defence force for potential investigation.
The defence minister, Peter Dutton, has revealed that military police may also play a role in investigating “several incidents”, while seeking to reassure whistleblowers they would be heard and supported.
The Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) – the body responsible for the long-running Brereton inquiry – was informed of the allegations five days after Guardian Australia revealed the army had launched its own investigation into alleged bullying and harassment of officer cadets at the Sydney University regiment.
At the time, the Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie had raised concerns about whether the fact-finding review was sufficiently independent.
Speaking under the protection of parliamentary privilege on Thursday, Lambie said young Australians “who are doing a gap year with army reserve are getting bullied and abused at the hands of Australian regular army officers”.
“Their gap year is turning into a nightmare from hell,” Lambie said in a speech to the Senate.
“The problems are bubbling over. There are illegal room searches going on. There are allegations of sexual abuse. There is rape going on. There is bullying going on. You know – that is what’s happening at our Sydney University regiment, and come out and try and deny it, just try me today. I’m doing everything I can to get it fixed.”
Guardian Australia has previously reported the allegations were understood to include claims of verbal abuse and inappropriate comments by superiors, and men conducting searches of women’s rooms, including their underwear drawers.
In a newly released response to questions taken on notice, Dutton said the army had, on 18 June, “referred the unacceptable behaviour issues related to the full-time army reserve officer at the Sydney University Regiment course which commenced in early 2021 to the IGADF”.
The IGADF would “determine if a broader inquiry is appropriate”, Dutton said, and he also pointed for a potential role for military police.
“The joint military police unit investigate matters when appropriate, and the Sydney University regiment has referred several incidents to them in 2021,” he said. “Some incidents are dealt with through fact findings.”
Dutton said defence encouraged people “to speak up if they experience or witness unacceptable behaviour in the workplace”. He declared that “all individuals involved will be supported and will have an opportunity to be heard as part of the process”.
Asked to guarantee complainants did not face consequences for speaking up, Dutton indicated that reprisals could spark administrative or disciplinary action.
“If an individual is the target of unacceptable behaviour because they have raised a complaint the commander or manager will address that behaviour quickly,” he said.
The response did not satisfy Lambie, who told the Senate on Thursday: “I’ve asked the minister whether he was confident that 18- and 19-year-old recruits will be safe ... Guess what? He has not directly answered my question.”
Lambie told the Senate: “I’m ex-military police. I’m asking you from one military police person to another, get in there and do your job and call them out.”
Guardian Australia has offered the defence media unit an opportunity to respond to Lambie’s comments.