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When your Aged Care Services Minister gets caught out

Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck fronts Senate estimates in June last year. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck fronts Senate estimates in June last year. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

It is now the turn of women to police the behaviour of a man in the public eye.*

Yep, I'm turning this into a gender thing for the following reason.

After two days solid of sooks across the nation whining about former Australian of the Year Grace Tame's side-eye at the Prime Minister, let me tell you about one man who really holds Australia in contempt.

As The Canberra Times' Dan Jervis-Bardy revealed this week, "Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck is under fire amid revelations he attended the Hobart Ashes Test on the same date he said he couldn't front Parliament's COVID-19 committee because it would divert resources from the pandemic response."

Let me confess that I love cricket. Absolutely adore it. Can watch it for hours. Have a deal with my little brother that we will plant our bottoms on the couch on Boxing Day and not move until stumps. And the chance to go to a Test in one's home state as a sponsored guest? What fun! But then I'm not responsible for trying to keep older Australians alive collectively. Let me reassure readers I am doing my best at an individual level.

A spokesperson for Colbeck said: "The decision for Minister Colbeck to attend the Ashes Test in Hobart was made as part of his commitments as Minister for Sport and senator for Tasmania. It should also be noted play for the day-night match did not start until late afternoon."

Not sure about you, but 2pm-ish is not what I would call late afternoon.

Colbeck put his duties, if you can call them that, as Sport Minister ahead of his responsibilities as Aged Care Services Minister, and that is wrong in so many ways. While I love sport as both a spectator and a hopeless participant, we are not in the middle of a sporting pandemic (unless you count the whacko behaviour of some of the audience at the Australian Open, who forget there are folks out there on the court who are at work. Yes it's well-paid work, but it is still work).

Let me remind you that not even Colbeck's boss thinks he is good at his job. You will recall that at a previous Senate inquiry hearing into COVID-19, Colbeck was asked for the number of people who had died in aged care during the pandemic. Couldn't recall. Worse than embarrassing. Utterly devastating. It was his job. Then he apologised for not getting "everything right". And just a reminder that the Prime Minister backed Colbeck at the time and said he still had confidence in his minister.

Those must be terrifying words to hear for anyone in the Liberal Party.

That was all August 2020. A few weeks later, in a very rare act, the Senate censured Colbeck for his inability to recall even the most basic facts about the impact of the pandemic on aged care residents. Despite Colbeck's admission, he still lost part of his job - the aged care portfolio was incorporated into health and Colbeck was demoted to Aged Care Services. The fact he is still allowed anywhere near this catastrophe shows you how poor Scott Morrison's judgment is.

ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher, who is also the committee chair, said quite rightly: "The aged care sector's been calling for the Defence Force to come in and feed people, and clean them, and this guy is sitting back at the cricket and pretends that it's OK."

As Sarah Russell, aged care researcher and director of advocacy group Aged Care Matters, has said on many occasions, Colbeck and Greg Hunt (the bloke who was sent in to pick up the pieces) should be held to account for these preventable tragedies. She says Colbeck should have resigned at the time he forgot all those inconvenient deaths.

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She says both Hunt and Colbeck knew older people were vulnerable to this crisis, because it was happening internationally before it happened in Australia. And she's furious that Colbeck allowed each facility to behave as if it were an individual business, instead of part of a wide network.

"We needed a specific plan for aged care homes. He didn't do that. Instead we had guidelines," she says.

Her own interest in aged care began when her parents were still alive. She says their place was pretty good in comparison and, thank god, she never had to abandon them because of lockdown. That, she says, has been the hardest thing for so many families - not being able to see the people they love or provide the ordinary daily acts of love, the feeding, the nurturing, the constancy of connection. So many were locked out of love.

Colbeck's priorities have been weird since day one. He dashed off to Tokyo to go to the Olympic Games when it's unlikely he will be Sport Minister by the time the Games come to Brisbane. That cost us around $60,000, so he could piggyback on Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk's win for her state. Folks in his own state could not believe it when he refused to support increased restrictions on fishing. And he is well-known for refusing to meet with locals - just ask the residents of the West Tamar district concerned about a pulp mill back in 2011.

He had prior commitments that day too.

*Look, I'm also happy for men to get annoyed about this behaviour. In fact, I'd love it. It's much more important than whether a brave young woman decides not to smile at the unsmileable. Just remember, you'll get old too.

  • Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.
This story When your Aged Care Services Minister gets caught out first appeared on The Canberra Times.