We have the least worst Minister in charge of Aged Care

Aug 24, 2020

Depending on your choice of cliche the aged care portfolio may be seen as a minefield, a poisoned chalice or a suicide mission – a high risk activity best avoided.

Since John Howard carved it out of health as a stand-alone ministry in 1998, the job has as often brought failure as reward to its political masters.

Some have survived; Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne and Ken Wyatt have all gone on to better things. But there have been some notable disasters.

Bronwyn Bishop regarded the junior appointment as something of an insult until she was embroiled in the program of giving kerosene baths to residents infested with lice. She was dropped from the team.

Santo Santoro tried to ignore allegations of abuse and rape in a Victorian nursing home, and was similarly sidelined.

The aged care errors were not the proximate cause of their ultimate political destruction, but they were certainly part of the background which labeled them vulnerable. Which leads us to the current incumbent, Richard Colbeck.

Even among the undistinguished lightweights of Scott Morrison’s outer ministry, Colbeck is something of a nonentity. He emerged from the building industry in Tasmania in 2002 to gain a casual vacancy in the senate, where he became a parliamentary secretary, where he remained until Malcolm Turnbull bumped him up to the ministry in 2015.

But because Colbeck was regarded as a moderate, Eric Abetz, Tasmania’s dark warlord smashed him down to an unwinnable position on the senate ticket in the election the following year. Another casual vacancy saw him restored in 2018.

And he was the right place at the right time; Scott Morrison thought it imperative that Tasmania should have a minister, and Colbeck was considered the least worse choice available. So he got his guernsey in aged care.

Given the tenuous nature of his credentials, it might have been thought that he would have been diligent in mastering the basics, especially when facing a hostile senate committee. Hence his inability to recall the numbers of infections and deaths in the homes he was overseeing was seen as major gaffe.

Morrison, a lifelong defender of the indefensible, said Colbeck retained his full confidence. But he must now be regarded as accident prone and vulnerable. Next time, simply being a resident of the Apple Isle may not be enough.

Sooner than he would wish, ScoMo could be looking for yet another Minister for Aged Care. But given the record, he is unlikely to be greeted with a rush of eager contenders.

Admittedly, the job is difficult and sensitive, the more so because of the uncertain divisions between state and federal authorities, both ready and eager to play the blame game whenever anything goes wrong – which is frequently.

And given that those in their charge are by definition the old and fragile, there is little sympathy for those who are seen to fail them or their overworked and underpaid health workers and carers.

A ministry can be a worthwhile prize, but as history shows, it can also be – to conclude our list of cliches – a sword of Damocles. Only the most desperately ambitious need apply.

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