richard-colbeck
Minister for Aged Care Richard Colbeck (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck is going to be increasingly in the gun over the coming weeks and months as the COVID-19 situation in the Victorian aged care sector continues to deteriorate. 

Indeed, News Corp’s Samantha Maiden predicted on Insiders yesterday that Colbeck would be targeted by Labor as a “weak link” when parliament resumes.

Australia’s political system often throws up elected representatives who end up being over-promoted beyond their skill set. Colbeck, a little-known Tasmanian senator, is a good example of that.

Like quite a few Tasmanian politicians (Andrew Wilkie, Jim Bacon and Brian Harradine being three other prominent examples), he wasn’t born there but grew up in Myrtleford in Victoria where he worked as an apprentice carpenter before eventually running his own business as a building estimator.

As a small business operator, he moved to Tasmania and joined the Liberal Party while rising to prominence as president of the Devonport Chamber of Commerce and a councillor on Devonport City Council. He was elected to the Senate at the 2001 election and served continuously from early 2002 until his defeat at the 2016 election — a 14-year stretch which included nine years in government and five years of opposition.

Colbeck’s parliamentary experience has spanned agriculture, fisheries, forestry, trade, investment, finance, water, science, tourism and international education — much of which is suitable for Tasmania and reflects his small business and employer/industry group background, but none of which suggests he understands the aged care sector or Australia’s health system.

Prior to last year’s federal election, all this experience had been at the assistant minister or parliamentary secretary level — besides briefly serving as minister for tourism and international education in the first Turnbull ministry, a reward for backing the coup against Abbott.

As a moderate Liberal, Colbeck has long been a factional opponent of the Tasmanian conservatives led by Eric Abetz and supported Malcolm Turnbull in all the leadership challenges before switching to Scott Morrison in the final ballot against Peter Dutton.

His battles with Abetz and Abbott saw him relegated to the unwinnable fifth position on the Liberal senate ticket in 2016 when the Liberals performed particularly poorly in Tasmania.

He lost his seat and then tried to make a living as a lobbyist, most notably joining Stephen Conroy at Responsible Wagering Australia, where he served as chairman, promoting the interests of big advertising foreign bookmakers like Sportsbet, Ladbrokes and BetEasy. 

You are judged by the company you keep, and jumping into the bed with foreign gambling giants who prey on their addicted customers doesn’t instil a lot of confidence that he will be particularly caring when it comes to looking after aged care residents who are being poorly treated by for-profit nursing home operators.

On returning to the Senate in late 2017 after fellow Tasmanian and Senate president Stephen Parry was knocked out courtesy of his dual citizenship, Colbeck was initially left on the backbench. But once Morrison took over as prime minister Colbeck got the job as assistant minister for agriculture and water resources.

After various moderate forces strongly backed him against the Abetz Daleks in 2019, Colbeck was preselected top of the Tasmanian Liberal ticket at last year’s election. This 62-year-old Victorian will be serving Tasmanians until at least 2024.

After his surprise victory last year, Morrison appointed Colbeck as minister for sport, youth and aged care, although he is not in cabinet, which perhaps reflects how seriously the Coalition takes aged care.

His appointment to the sports portfolio raised eyebrows given his past role chairing the foreign bookmakers’ lobby group.

Anti-gambling campaigner Tim Costello told Crikey: “Senator Colbeck should never have been appointed to the sports portfolio in 2019 given the obvious conflict of interest from being a former gambling industry lobbyist, particularly given how much his part of the gambling industry, the foreign bookmakers, relies on their deep ties with sport to make their large profits.”

In any case, the sport and youth parts of his portfolio will be taking a back seat as Colbeck navigates the unfolding aged care debacle in the period ahead.

One of his predecessors in the aged care portfolio, Kevin Andrews, once told me that John Howard appointed him aged care minister after Bronwyn Bishop’s kerosene baths fiasco with a specific brief to keep the portfolio out of the media.

Andrews did a good job of that and visited more than 500 nursing homes during his two-year stretch. Given his knowledge of the sector, Morrison could do worse than switching the uninspiring Colbeck out and reinstating Andrews, particularly given that he is on the ground in Melbourne. It’s not a good look for Colbeck to be regularly flying over Victoria when commuting from Tasmania to Canberra.

And it really is ridiculous that the aged care portfolio is not in cabinet. Another option might be to give it to Greg Hunt given the obvious synergies with the health portfolio.

Whatever happens, surely Morrison won’t stick with the status quo.

Is it time Australia had a new minister for aged care? And how do we fix the crisis enveloping the sector? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.