Aged care minister Richard Colbeck says he's not personally responsible for 700 Covid deaths

Daniel Hurst
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Australia’s aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, has said he does not feel personally responsible for the nearly 700 coronavirus-related deaths that have occurred across the sector and wants to keep his job in the forthcoming reshuffle.

With Labor sharpening its pursuit of the government over a range of accountability and integrity issues, Colbeck declared the deaths as tragic but ultimately caused by Covid-19, and said he had not offered his resignation to the prime minister at any stage in the crisis.

At the same time as Colbeck defended his performance in a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday, Michael McCormack was confronted in question time over claims luxury jet owners were among operators to have received support through a program to help the domestic airline industry.

Related: New laws needed to protect elderly people from substandard care and abuse in aged care homes

Labor’s transport spokesperson, Catherine King, told parliament the government had subsidised luxury private jets operated by Crown Casino, Clive Palmer’s Mineralogy and the Leppington Pastoral Company to the combined value of $73,000.

This was based on a breakdown supplied by the government in Senate estimates hearings, showing the value of waivers of certain fees under one of the aviation relief packages.

McCormack, the deputy prime minister who rolled out the aviation support programs, told parliament the government had committed assistance “on a sector-wide basis”. He said he was proud that it had helped deliver “aeromedical and charter flights for fly-in, fly-out” workers to keep regional communities operating.

In a subsequent statement, a spokesperson for McCormack said the waiver of fees normally charged for air traffic control and related services was available for all domestic flights.

“Those recipients included aeromedical services, critical freight suppliers, and regional and rural charter operators,” the spokesperson said.

Labor has seized on a series of scandals to intensify pressure on the Coalition for failing to release draft legislation to set up a national integrity commission – but Scott Morrison argued last week he did not want one public servant diverted from the Covid-19 response.

In the Senate’s Community Affairs Legislation Committee, the Labor senator Kristina Keneally questioned what she saw as a lack of ministerial accountability for the deadly coronavirus outbreaks in aged care.

Colbeck informed the committee that the total number of Australians who had died in all types of aged care was 691, of whom 683 were residents of residential care – a contrast from a hearing in August when he was unable to immediately answer a similar question.

Asked if he felt a sense of ministerial responsibility for the aged care deaths, Colbeck replied: “I don’t feel responsible personally for the deaths that have occurred, as tragic as they all are, which have been caused by Covid-19.”

He maintained that the approach taken by the Australian government had saved lives. “The thing that would have saved lives is the prevention of the escape of Covid-19 in Victoria leading to the second wave.”

Colbeck said while he acknowledged the Senate had passed a censure motion against him in September, he was “determined to continue the work I’ve been doing since the beginning of the Covid outbreak in the interests of senior Australians and particularly those in aged care”.

With Morrison expected to reshuffle his ministry at the end of the year, Colbeck said it would be “a matter for the prime minister” whether he would continue in his current role, but he added that he would like to remain in aged care.

He dismissed questions contrasting Morrison’s swift action in relation to Australia Post spending nearly $20,000 on four Cartier watches and lack of accountability on the aged care deaths, suggesting Labor was trying to turn the hearing into “a political point-scoring exercise” by likening two very different issues.

Colbeck recommitted to providing a response to parliament by 1 December on the actions taken after the aged care royal commission’s special report, which found the Morrison government’s attempt to prepare the sector for Covid-19 was insufficient in some respects.

Labor also raised concerns during the Senate committee hearing about more than $900,000 in consultancy contracts awarded to a former aged care executive who has previously faced bullying allegations.

Contract records indicate the health department has signed two contracts with Cooperage Capital Pty Ltd this year, the first of which was for $415,800 for work on a residential aged care financial viability project between January and September. The second was for $503,800 for the period October 2020 to June 2021.

In Senate estimates, health officials confirmed Cooperage Capital was “largely” a one-man operation headed by Gary Barnier, who is simultaneously a member of the Aged Care Financing Authority (ACFA).

During the Senate committee proceedings, Keneally made reference to past media reports that Barnier had quit as managing director of Opal Aged Care in November 2017 after the ABC reported allegations he had bullied residents and families.

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Those investigations triggered an independent review commissioned by the Opal board. Keneally contended that Barnier had quit in advance of the review being completed. Barnier has previously denied the bullying allegations.

A health official said the department had examined the allegations and understood there had been no material findings against Barnier.

Colbeck said Barnier had been employed for his financial expertise. “Clearly those matters were investigated through appropriate channels at the time,” he said.

“I have confidence in Mr Barnier’s financial capacity which is the skill set he has been employed to provide to the department ... I’m not seeking to pass comment or otherwise on the allegations that you place against Mr Barnier.”

The first contract notice says it was done by limited tender “due to an absence of competition for technical reasons”. The second was an extension of the first.

Under questioning from government senators, health officials said 95% of the 683 aged care deaths had occurred in Victoria.