Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Aged-care failures continue to plague government

Red-faced and contrite, the minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians and minister for Youth and Sport, Richard Colbeck, apologised in the senate and offered his “sincere condolences” to hundreds of grieving families.

That he cut a sorry figure in the red chamber, though, was not all his own doing. This government, with its failures in aged-care policy and delivery, must share a good deal of the blame. Colbeck’s sloppiness when he appeared before the senate’s Covid-19 committee last Friday was inexcusable, but it was also a damaging reflection on the sad mess they are all in.

Ministers are expected to run their portfolios in the best way to deliver government policy. The brutal reality in our system of contested governance is that they are instead expected to be, first and foremost, salespeople. Always to put the best gloss on what is happening and do it in a way that can persuade the electorate they are on top of their game.

In this, Colbeck was an embarrassing failure. In the senate inquiry, there was an excruciating silence as he fumbled through his papers looking for the latest coronavirus death toll for aged-care residents. To the horror of his parliamentary colleagues, particularly the prime minister, he had come to the hearing without doing his homework. So, the chair of the committee, Labor’s Katy Gallagher, asked a departmental official, who reported that as of 8am on Thursday, August 20, it stood at 254 people.

Gallagher then followed up with another question on how many aged-care residents were currently infected with the virus. And again, Colbeck drew a blank. Incredulous, Gallagher pointedly summed up the situation: “You don’t know how many people have passed away. You’re now telling me you don’t know how many people have the infection?” She reminded him “you’re the minister for Aged Care”.

You know the minister is in trouble when his PM is asked at the first possible opportunity, “Do you have confidence in Richard Colbeck?” Scott Morrison, through gritted teeth, answered in the affirmative. But with Labor signalling that when parliament resumed this week, aged care would be top of the agenda – and demands for Colbeck’s head a big part of the play – the prime minister had to come up with something more.

So on Monday morning, as selected MPs and senators began arriving at Parliament House, resplendent in their face masks, Morrison’s office contacted the opposition. The prime minister would be making a statement “on indulgence”, at the beginning of question time, about the current state of the pandemic. There was a risk for Morrison – this would also give Anthony Albanese equal time to reply – but short of sacking Colbeck, the PM’s options were limited. Yet Morrison’s “indulgence” speech didn’t mention his hapless minister. That was left to Albanese, who said Colbeck’s Covid-19 committee appearance showed the minister “frankly … [was] not up to this task”.

Meanwhile, over in the senate, Colbeck stumbled again, adding insult to injury. Although Hansard has since expunged the gaffe, 1.8 million viewers nationwide of the top-rating Seven News and its affiliates saw him misread his notes: “Every single one of those 385, er, 35 … Every one of those 335 deaths is an absolutely, absolute tragedy.”

Even for Scott Morrison, the government’s master salesman, defending the Coalition’s record on aged care during the pandemic is proving a daunting task. On the one hand, the prime minister claims overwhelming success. He told parliament that 92 per cent (later corrected to 97 per cent) of Australia’s 2706 residential aged-care facilities have “no infections among residents”. But the mounting death toll, driven largely by the situation in Victoria – in federally regulated and funded institutions – is too big a human tragedy to play down, as he is attempting to do. 

By Thursday, 572 people had died from Covid-19, with Victoria contributing 485 deaths to that miserable total. For perspective, consider this – four deaths among the thousands employed in the Rudd government’s home insulation scheme was more than enough for the Liberals to condemn the scheme as a tragic and expensive Labor failure.

The “pink batts” fatalities were undeniably the states’ failure to implement their own occupational health and safety standards. Eight inquiries lumped the blame on them and the unscrupulous employers for the casualties. But that didn’t stop Kevin Rudd’s successor as prime minister, Tony Abbott, instituting a multimillion-dollar royal commission “to keep faith” with the grieving families who were demanding justice.

Rather than call for more scrutiny and accountability, Morrison shielded Colbeck behind the government’s “world-beating” performance – 11 of the world’s developed nations, he said, including the United States and Britain, have fared far worse. If Colbeck’s handling of the crisis has been so “world-beating” though, why has the prime minister sidelined him from key decisions about where new aged-care emergency response centres should be established? Instead that responsibility will stay with the senior minister in the Health portfolio, Greg Hunt.

Labor’s Aged Care spokeswoman, Julie Collins, says if the prime minister “is no longer confident his minister … can do the job, then he should sack him. This is a test of Scott Morrison’s leadership.”

Morrison and his most senior Victorian minister, Josh Frydenberg, spent the parliamentary week doing everything in their power to lay the blame for the aged-care disaster entirely at the feet of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. They said Andrews had failed against the gold standard set by Gladys Berejiklian, the Liberal premier in New South Wales, when it came to successful containment through efficient tracing and tighter hotel quarantine.

This blame-shifting hasn’t impressed the aged-care royal commissioners. On Monday, they released the results of research that found the federal government has “no care quality outcome reporting”. The commissioners were brutally frank about this lack of “unbiased measurement and reporting of performance” that is vital “to create accountability and continuous improvement in the aged-care sector”.

The commissioners said, “It is unacceptable that in 2020 the aged-care system is still without this. Had the Australian government acted upon previous reviews of aged care, the persistent problems in aged care would have been known much earlier and the suffering of many people could have been avoided.”

None of this surprises veteran Victorian Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent. He has been calling for a shake-up in the aged-care sector ever since he resigned two prestigious parliamentary committee positions three years ago in protest over the government’s treatment of aged care in his Gippsland electorate.

Broadbent says the crisis in Victoria was “a disaster waiting to happen” and his warnings have been ignored. He says that for years successive governments have handed care of the aged over to the private sector and that has been a mistake. “Profit became more important than care,” he says. Broadbent is now calling for increased funding for non-profit providers, “particularly in regional areas”. Echoing the royal commissioners, he says funding for the federal Health Department needs to be boosted because “there are not enough people on the ground to know what is going on at a local level”.

Ironically, Victoria’s health crisis is providing some cover for Morrison from the bitter internecine warfare that’s tearing apart the state’s Liberal division. A joint investigation by 60 Minutes and the Nine newspapers got access to an avalanche of recorded conversations and emails every bit as unsavoury as the cache they produced exposing dirty factional dealings in the state Labor Party. Adding to the Liberals’ discomfort, the usually supportive Australian jumped into the fray midweek with its own batch of leaked internal correspondence, adding racism and religious bigotry to the power struggles.

One of Morrison’s ministers, Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, has been pulled into the scandal, accused of using taxpayer-funded electorate office staff to organise branch stacking to further the right’s agenda and takeover of the party. Former Abbott government minister Kevin Andrews is also embroiled in the allegations but, like Sukkar, denies any wrongdoing and has referred his staff hiring to the federal Finance Department for investigation. Just how it will distinguish between party operatives and genuine electorate staffers is anybody’s guess, but that remedy is good enough for Morrison.

The prime minister has adopted his favoured “innocent bystander” pose, telling reporters on Wednesday that he’s been dealing with the Covid-19 crisis and “getting people back into jobs”. He was not so forgiving of Albanese after the Labor version was just as sensationally reported. “Anthony Albanese has been totally burned by this scandal,” the prime minister said back in June. He derided what was reported as “industrial-scale branch stacking” and told 2GB’s Ben Fordham that “Anthony Albanese is leading a party in absolute chaos and disarray”. Morrison said, “We’re fighting for jobs, they’re fighting each other.”

Albanese was clearly not impressed by the double standard. He said Labor acted immediately, expelling a minister from the party and imposing federal intervention to clean up the Victorian branch. He told ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly, “[It’s] a bit like aged care; he’s saying it’s not his responsibility.” He said someone should tell Scott Morrison that he’s “actually in charge of the Liberal Party. That this is a scandal. That his assistant treasurer is in it up to his neck … and that his position is untenable.”

Sidelining Richard Colbeck is easier for Morrison than taking on a powerbroker such as Michael Sukkar. But both ministers are denting Morrison’s claim this week that he didn’t “deny the high expectations that are rightly set for us as Australians”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Death of a salesman".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.