Two jobs

The criticism of the federal government over the past two years has condensed into a single phrase: You had two jobs. Oddly, this was also the basis of Richard Colbeck’s defence in a senate hearing this week: I had two jobs.

“I did make a specific decision about the balance of my portfolios,” he said, when asked why he attended the Ashes instead of a hearing into the coronavirus outbreak in aged care. “The Test match in Hobart was a significant event for Tasmania. Obviously, as minister for Sport as well as the minister for Aged Care Services and Senior Australians, I had to be conscious of that as an issue.”

On Thursday, the government announced a taskforce to investigate Covid-19 in aged care. This is after royal commission findings the government sat on and then ignored. It is after almost 800 deaths, 500 of them in the past month.

There is no mystery about what has gone wrong. Vaccine supply has been slow and insufficient. The workforce is underpaid and casualised. As much as a quarter of staff are now furloughed with the virus or suspicions of it. Even when they are not sick, nurse ratios are insufficient.

So-called reforms begun by John Howard have opened the sector to an appalling profit motive. Private enterprise has made care at once monstrously expensive and inadequate. Peculiarities in regulation encourage investment in almost everything but standards.

“On very careful balance and acknowledging the different elements of my portfolio, and all during that week and including that weekend, when the Test match was on in Hobart, and on the day of the first day of the Test match, I spent the predominant part of the day working on the aged-care outbreak in the morning of the 14th,” Colbeck said, sounding more and more like a Lewis Carroll burlesque.

“The first discussion that I had was with Lieutenant-General [John] Frewen and his team, about the work that we were doing to bring forward the vaccination of residents and receiving their booster shots. So it was a very important part of what we’ve been doing to protect senior Australians in residential aged care.”

Colbeck raises his eyebrows when he speaks, as if even he is surprised by what he is saying. When he is not doing that, he lifts his shoulders for the same effect. He wants it to be known that he works weekends, even though they happen at the weekend. He clasps his hands to the tops of his forearms like he is edging out of a straitjacket we cannot see.

“No, I don’t accept that it’s in complete crisis, senator,” he says. “I know it is certainly working very, very hard to manage the impacts, particularly of the Omicron outbreak, but my view, and the data actually supports that, is that the sector is performing and has performed exceptionally well.”

Colbeck did not specify how many deaths would constitute a “complete” crisis. Nor did he say what sort of “crisis” the sector was in now. He did point out that other politicians went to the cricket as well. The shadow minister for Agriculture was there. “I wasn’t the only one.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Top jobs".

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