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Who is Richard Colbeck? The low-profile minister in the middle of a COVID crisis

Labor's leader in the Senate, Penny Wong accused Senator Colbeck of abandoning "responsibility".

Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong accused Senator Colbeck of abandoning “responsibility”.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It is not unusual for ministers to simply leave the chamber after delivering a speech, especially those with a crisis on their hands – but when Colbeck did so on Thursday it gave Wong, Labor’s leader in the Senate, the opportunity to accuse him of abandoning responsibility.

“Maybe you should stay and listen to what the Senate has to say, Minister Colbeck,” Senator Wong said in an exchange that was swiftly uploaded to social media, before launching yet another blistering attack questioning the minister’s sense of “honour and principle”.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese, who used his National Press Club address on Thursday to attack the minister as “incompetent” and call for his sacking, tweeted the video to his 235,500 followers with the caption: “The moment the Minister for Aged Care turned his back on accountability.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his minister on morning television the following day, telling Nine’s Today show: “He didn’t walk out of questioning,” explaining that Colbeck had left the Senate to deal with “very serious issues” in his portfolio.

Speaking to The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age, the minister explained he had left to speak to aged care providers, one who was “looking to get some assistance with testing his staff” and another, in the grips of an outbreak, whose concerns he was pursuing with the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre set up by the national cabinet last month.

“I didn’t walk out on any questioning,” Colbeck says, pointing out he had answered about 60 questions throughout the sitting week as the target of Labor’s relentless offensive. “It’s not as if there hadn’t been scrutiny of me and the portfolio.”

Attending to the crisis at hand had taken priority over “sitting there listening to them making speeches about me”, he says.

But for many of those watching at home, including family members of elderly Victorians who had died in the state’s second wave of COVID-19, the damage was already done.

Spiros Dimitriou, whose 73-year-old father, John, died in hospital this month after being infected with COVID-19 at St Basil’s Home for the Aged in the northern Melbourne suburb of Fawkner, described Colbeck’s exit from the chamber as “very disrespectful.”

Dimitriou says it was “frustrating” to hear the Prime Minister backing his minister and both stating community transmission had made COVID-19 deaths in aged care inevitable.

“The prime minister said in March that ‘we must protect the vulnerable’,” he says. “They weren’t prepared … someone’s got to be held accountable.”

''Someone's got to be held accountable'': Spiros Dimitriou at his father John's grave in Glenroy.

”Someone’s got to be held accountable”: Spiros Dimitriou at his father John’s grave in Glenroy.Credit:Joe Armao

He blasted state and federal politicians for engaging in a “blame game” over who was responsible for the Victorian aged care disaster, saying: “Let’s fix it.”

Klery Loutas lost her mother Filia Xynidakis, also a St Basil’s resident, despite the fact that she did not contract the coronavirus.

In the chaos of the outbreak that killed more than a quarter of St Basil’s 120 residents and caused its entire workforce to be sent home, the 77-year-old suffered dehydration and malnutrition that accelerated her dementia in what doctors have described as a case of neglect.

“If you can’t man up and face up, you need to leave – you’re not right for the job,” Loutas says of the minister.

“If I walked out on a meeting with the board of directors where I work, I’d be sacked … The only issue is, someone new to the portfolio would have to go through the whole process of learning everything.”

Loutas says the government should have heeded lessons of earlier aged care outbreaks after being handed a report in April outlining the failings at Newmarch House in Sydney’s west, and that the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission had failed to enforce standards.

She called on the minister to implement the changes needed to prepare for “the next outbreak” and “not wait for the Royal Commission” to hand down its recommendations.

The failures in aged care are now the subject of a fierce political stoush over who should be held responsible, though it is clear both state and federal authorities were involved in managing the pandemic response in the sector.

As the death toll from the virus climbed, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews emphasised the federal government’s role in funding aged care and regulating standards, while Morrison and his minister pointed the finger at Victorian health authorities.

Loutas says to her it was simple: “You paid for it, you’re responsible.” Federal politicians should not try to “deflect or diffuse” their culpability, she says.

National cabinet last month unveiled a plan to set up Aged Care Response Centres in each state and territory as needed, to rally surge workforces to fill rosters and ensure that hospital beds were ready to accept elderly patients, through the federal government’s partnership with private hospitals.

A senior government source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says the prime minister’s faith in Colbeck was “rock solid” and that rumours of his impending demise in the next cabinet reshuffle were false.

Morrison, asked multiple times over the past week if Colbeck’s position was tenable, repeated on Friday: “I do have confidence [in him].”

A Coalition source with knowledge of the portfolio says the prime minister “has a major problem” after failing to give it priority, with the pandemic in full swing and the Royal Commission into Aged Care making a ministerial switch problematic.

“He needs someone who is a change agent … with a degree of understanding and empathy,” the source says.

The problem was the aged care portfolio had been so neglected that “nobody takes it seriously and, unfortunately, nobody wants it. Unless you’ve got political standing, you can’t enforce reform.”

Aged care providers and Labor have bemoaned the government’s failure to elevate the aged care portfolio to the cabinet level, where it once sat with health in a combined portfolio.

“There should be a minister who is singularly responsible for this portfolio, and they should be a member of the cabinet,” says Leading Aged Services Australia chief executive Sean Rooney.

A number of federal politicians on both sides of the aisle see Colbeck’s appointment as Aged Care Minister in May 2019 as a political fluke.

Colbeck was appointed to the Senate in 2002 to fill a vacancy. In 2016 he lost his seat after being demoted to fifth place on the Coalition ticket in Tasmania, but unexpectedly returned in February 2018 after the parliamentary eligibility crisis forced Stephen Parry, a dual British citizen, to resign.

Coalition convention dictates that a minister should be drawn from Tasmania and factional allegiances meant Colbeck, who had supported Malcolm Turnbull, was elevated over his conservative state colleagues by Morrison in his reshuffle after the 2019 election.

Asked if he felt he had been handed a poisoned chalice, the minister says he had “never looked at it like that” but, rather, had seen “an opportunity to actually do something” about the troubled sector.

Secretary of the Department of Health Professor Brendan Murphy and Minister Colbeck appearing via video-conference, during a Senate select committee hearing on COVID-19, at Parliament House on August 21.

Secretary of the Department of Health Professor Brendan Murphy and Minister Colbeck appearing via video-conference, during a Senate select committee hearing on COVID-19, at Parliament House on August 21.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Colbeck says he entered the portfolio determined to “work out what it is that might actually change the way the system operates”.

Albanese pointed out the Coalition had “churned through seven ministers with responsibility for aged care – one for every year they have been in power”.

The portfolio’s lowly status was highlighted on Monday when The Australian ran a front page story alleging that Colbeck had been “benched” over his performance at the August 21 committee hearing, when he was unable to say how many Victorian aged care residents had died.

The newspaper pointed out the decision of when to activate new Aged Care Response Centres in each state lay with Health Minister Greg Hunt, not Colbeck, a detail seized upon by Labor – despite the fact the pandemic response had always been led by the health department.

As a cabinet minister, it is Hunt who attends meetings of the national cabinet, where decisions are made in concert with state and territory leaders.

Colbeck says Labor senators were using “cute language” when they grilled him over whether he had briefed national cabinet on the crisis, saying he spoke with the prime minister daily about the situation in Victoria.

“I can talk to the prime minister anytime I want, I have his full attention,” he says.

Morrison, who has announced $1 billion worth of aged care funding during the pandemic, promised more in the October federal budget, with further investments to be made next year after the Royal Commission delivers its recommendations.

“We need to be able to act quickly off the back of that and seize the momentum,” Colbeck says. “The current situation creates a mood where people are more prepared to accept some change than they might have been. I want to see benefit from the pain.”

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