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Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck. Photo: Lukas Coch

Aged care minister censured: What the pollies had to say

The Senate on Thursday censured Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck for failing to recall “the most basic and tragic facts” about aged care deaths during the pandemic – a move Prime Minister Scott Morrison has shrugged off.

In August, Colbeck was asked how many residents in government-funded aged care facilities had died from COVID-19. He was unable to answer before the question was passed on.

The minister was also censured for “describing his management of aged care as a ‘high water mark’”, along with “dismissing deaths as a ‘function’ of aged care”, and for “failing to take responsibility” for the aged care virus crisis.

The leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, said: “Senator Colbeck has been warned repeatedly. Every three months since he has become minister, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission has told him that standards were not met in as many as 45 per cent of site audits and 100 per cent of review audits.

“The Morrison government must do better, and the Senate should express its view that it must do better by censuring this minister. The country has lost confidence in this minister. He has lost the confidence of the parliament. He has lost the confidence of his colleagues and he should be censured.”

Mathias Cormann, Leader of the Government in the Senate, backed his colleague, saying the Liberal and Nationals senators strongly opposed the move.

“We stand with our colleague, Senator Colbeck, who is doing a very good job in a very challenging area in a very difficult context,” Cormann said.

“Minister Colbeck has acknowledged, taken responsibility and apologised for not having the number of deaths in aged care due to COVID-19 at his fingertips at the recent Senate inquiry.

"The resources supplied to the national COVID-19 health response plan to support the aged-care sector are a clear demonstration of the important work undertaken in support of aged-care residents through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

After the motion to censure the minister was agreed to with the support of the crossbenchers, Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill asked Colbeck when he would resign and hand over his portfolio "to someone who won’t fall short of the mark and might be capable of getting it right”.

Colbeck said he would continue his work “reforming and improving the aged-care sector”.

“It was this government that called the royal commission into aged care," Colbeck said. "There have been members on the other side trotting around saying that they supported it, when they didn’t; in fact they called into doubt whether we actually needed an aged-care royal commission.

“This government has acted and continues to act while the royal commission continues to reform the sector and improve it so that senior Australians get the care they deserve in residential care and in home care.”

Later, in the House of Representatives, Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese asked Morrison why he was “arrogantly persisting with an aged-care minister who clearly should be sacked from his job”.

In response, Morrison said censures in the Senate were “not a new thing”.

“John Howard was censured by the Senate. Paul Keating was censured by the Senate. Gareth Evans was censured by the Senate. Graham Richardson was censured by the Senate — my good friend Graham. George Brandis was censured by the Senate.”

He also compared the aged care infection rates to the United Kingdom, noting that some eight per cent of Australian facilities have been affected by COVID infections, compared to 56 per cent in the UK.

“The actions that have been put in place by the government have ensured that we have been able to mitigate what has been a terrible blow as a result of COVID-19 across this country, including in the aged care sector.

“And, despite the fact there have been a number of cases in facilities, the rest of the aged-care sector has benefited from the measures that have been put in place.”

Albanese later said the censuring in the Senate was the first seen in more than five years. “And what did we see from this Prime Minister? He just dismissed it all. He said, ‘Graham Richardson got censured.’ You bet. And he resigned from the Senate, not just from the ministry.

“The fact is that this minister is not up to the job and he should go.”

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