Aged Care Minister looks weak on enormous problem

It is bad enough to look uncaring about the deaths of 258 people in aged care homes. It is even worse to look out of your depth about what to do next.

The minister directly responsible for those homes, Richard Colbeck, did nothing on Friday to raise confidence in his ability to handle the coronavirus outbreaks in aged care.

Asked how many residents had died from the outbreaks, the federal Aged Care Minister did not know. Asked how many cases there were, he could not say.

A minister can be forgiven for not knowing the answer to a surprise question in a hostile Senate committee hearing, but Colbeck was asked for basic facts about the biggest emergency he is likely to face in his political career.

The bigger problem was he struggled to offer compelling answers about his actions in aged care even when a better answer was possible.

Asked whether the government had done costings on protecting older Australians, Colbeck quibbled with the question by arguing it was not possible to save everyone.

"Where there has been widespread community transmission the reality is that we will continue to see outbreaks in all parts of our community but we see tragically the results that occur in residential aged care," he said at one point.

There is a grim logic here: aged care homes cannot be fully shielded from the second wave in Victoria. But why should Colbeck want to sound resigned to more deaths? The government keeps using "community transmission" as a crutch in every argument.

Colbeck could have offered a better answer. The government had already committed a further $850 million to aged care before he spoke. It announced another $171 million soon after he finished.

So the government is not sitting idle. It is spending money on a surge workforce, a retention bonus for staff and cash payments to aged care operators. It is promising more money in the October budget.

Yet Colbeck was not across all the details. It was almost as if he needed to be jolted into realising he was in charge.

Scott Morrison backed his minister on Friday afternoon. But it is not the Prime Minister's job to save his minister. It is the minister's job to deal with this emergency. It is the minister's job to save himself.

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