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

Richard Colbeck is the minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians in Scott Morrison’s government, sworn to “well and truly serve the people of Australia” in that office. He is paid $332,720 a year plus allowances.

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has put forward the case that Colbeck must resign or be sacked. Is the case made out?

The case for the prosecution is summarised in a short speech Albanese posted on social media, making the following factual claims:

  • 566 people in aged care have died since January 1, double the number of deaths in all 2021
  • 15,000 residents and 17,000 aged care workers have been infected with COVID
  • One quarter of shifts in aged care facilities are not being filled (for lack of available workers)
  • 80,000 residents have not received booster shots
  • Residents are missing out on food and water, showers, their wounds unattended
  • The aged care royal commission described the sector in one word — neglect — prior to this crisis being allowed to develop.

The case is bolstered by specific acts and admissions by Colbeck. In a Senate inquiry in August 2020, he was asked how many people had died in aged care from COVID. He didn’t know. (The number was 292.) He did, however, apologise because the government “didn’t get everything right” in its response to that point.

One months later, the Senate passed a censure motion against Colbeck, declaring no confidence in his handling of aged care.

Another month later, when the number of deaths had gone past 700, Colbeck declared to another Senate hearing that they were tragic but that he felt no personal responsibility.

The Senate later convened a committee to inquire into the government’s handling of COVID. On January 7 this year, it asked Colbeck to attend a hearing on January 14. He wrote back refusing, on the basis that “diverting time and resources” during the Omicron outbreak “would impact the urgent and critical work” of his department.

As it turned out, Colbeck was going to the cricket instead; he attended the Hobart Test as a guest for three days, from January 14 to 16. His position on that choice is that he is also the minister for sport, but that he didn’t put his sport portfolio above his aged care one, and he “wasn’t just at the cricket — I continued to work…”

As to the allegation that aged care is in crisis, Colbeck says it is not, and was in fact performing extremely well considering the circumstances. Nevertheless, the government has announced the formation of a taskforce to scrutinise the disproportionately high death rate in aged care.

Analysing the prosecution and defence cases, I can confirm that the objective factual allegations (deaths, boosters etc) are true. The broader allegations of neglect and lack of proper care are harder to establish, but the fact that both the aged care industry and its workers’ unions are calling for the government to send the military in to help is a pretty strong indicator that a crisis is in full swing.

The aged care royal commission did indeed pass its interim judgment on the impact of COVID on the sector, following a special hearing in August 2020. It found the workforce was “under-resourced and overworked” and “now also traumatised”. Counsel assisting had submitted that it was clear on the evidence that the aged care sector had not been well prepared for COVID and not all that could be done to prepare it was done.

“The federal government, which has sole responsibility for aged care, was firmly on notice in early 2020” about the threat.

Damningly, counsel noted at that time that on the measure of the proportion of total COVID deaths represented by aged care residents (70%), Australia was “one of the worst performing countries in the world”.

Between January 1 and February 3 this year, 1749 Australians were reported to have died from COVID, 566 being aged care residents. The additional number receiving aged care in their home is not recorded. 

Perhaps that’s what Colbeck means when he says the sector is performing extremely well — the proportion of aged care deaths has dropped from 70% to one third. That is, however, explained by the fact that COVID is now rampant in the community, which in 2020 it was not.

Ministers of the Crown, being public officers and carrying a commission from the Queen to serve the public interest, have heavy and unique responsibilities. They also carry the most basic burden of office, the same one anyone in a position of responsibility bears: competence. If that is not met, the public should rightly expect them to relinquish the role so that someone else who is competent can perform it.

The case against Colbeck is that, under his watch, his portfolio responsibility has been incompetently acquitted and, in fact, neglected. Further, that he has exhibited personal unwillingness or inability to take his job seriously and step up to the awesome challenge of COVID-19 as it assaulted the most vulnerable sector of the population.

The case is, it seems to me, unarguable. If there are any standards left at all in this government, the outcome is obvious.

Should Richard Colbeck lose his $332,720 a year job? Let us know your thoughts by writing to Please include your full name if you would like to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say columnWe reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.