The view from Billinudgel

The least worst minister
Richard Colbeck is the latest minister to bungle the aged-care portfolio

Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck. Via Facebook

Depending on your choice of cliché, 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 brought aged care to the fore, joining it with the health ministry in 1998, the job has as often brought failure as reward to its political masters.

Some former aged-care ministers have survived: Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne and Ken Wyatt have all gone on to more prominent positions after holding the portfolio. But there have also been some notable disasters.

Bronwyn Bishop regarded the appointment as something of an insult until she was embroiled in the program of giving kerosene baths to residents as a cure for scabies. She was dropped from the team. Santo Santoro came under fire when allegations emerged of abuse and rape in a Victorian nursing home, and was similarly sidelined. For Bishop and Santoro, the aged-care errors were not the proximate cause of their ultimate political destruction, but they were certainly part of the background that labelled them vulnerable. This leads us to the 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, and soon after gained a casual vacancy as a parliamentary secretary in the Senate, where he remained until Malcolm Turnbull bumped him up to the ministry in 2015.

But because Colbeck was regarded as a moderate, Tasmania’s dark warlord Eric Abetz 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 in the right place at the right time. Scott Morrison thought it imperative that Tasmania should have a minister, and Colbeck was considered the least worst choice available. So, he got his guernsey in aged care.

Given the tenuous nature of Colbeck’s credentials, it might have been thought that he would have diligently mastered the basics of his portfolio, especially when facing a hostile Senate committee. His inability to recall the numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the nursing homes he was overseeing was therefore seen as major gaffe.

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

Sooner than Colbeck would wish, Morrison could be looking for yet another minister for aged care. Given the record, however, the PM is unlikely to be greeted with a rush of eager contenders.

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

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

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

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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