The Prime Minister has defended his Aged Care Services Minister, after it emerged he went to the Ashes cricket on the same day he said he was too busy to appear at a COVID committee hearing on the government’s handling of the pandemic response.
Senator Richard Colbeck, who also holds the sports portfolio, has been accused of “arrogant complacency” after it emerged he said he and department officials wouldn’t attend the January 14 hearing because diverting officials’ time and resources from the outbreak response would “impact the urgent and critical work the department is undertaking”.
The Tasmanian senator’s register of interests shows he accepted tickets to the Ashes test in Hobart on January 14, 15 and 16.
A statement from the Liberal minister’s office said his dedication to his role “has never been greater”, adding he had attended several engagements on January 14.
They included a COVID-19 vaccine and response meeting, and separate meetings with aged care and health officials.
“At a time when the Australian government continues to work to protect the lives of senior Australians in care, attempts by the Senate select committee on COVID-19 to redirect resources away from the Department of Health for political purposes is of serious concern and should be noted by Australians as we navigate the impact of the pandemic,” it read.
The statement also notes the day-night cricket test did not begin until the late afternoon.
On Brisbane radio 4BC on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the government’s handling of COVID in the aged-care sector, and said Senator Colbeck would take “the criticism on the chin”.
“Ministers have many responsibilities, I can understand the criticism,” Mr Morrison said.
“I think Richard has taken that on board – I have no doubt.
“But I can tell you, I mean, over the course of this pandemic, I know Richard very well, and there have been a few knockers of him, but I know what he does each and every day for the welfare of people living in our residential aged care facilities. He’ll take that criticism on the chin and he’ll get back to work.”
Mr Morrison said the sector was “holding up”, despite escalating virus infections, and that the impact of the pandemic on aged care was discussed at every national cabinet meeting.
Figures released on Friday revealed about a third of Australia’s COVID deaths so far this year had occurred in residential aged care, with more than half of all NSW facilities battling outbreaks.
Mr Morrison said there was “no easy way through COVID and in aged care the challenge is the greatest”. He acknowledged tough challenges faced by the industry, including staff doing double shifts.
“We are seeing results there … compared to other countries, the aged care system in Australia is holding up,” he said.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham also defended Senator Colbeck, saying he was “devoting huge amounts of his time to aged care”.
“Even on those days he was at the Test match, he was engaged through all of the routine morning briefings that happened,” Senator Birmingham told the ABC.
“Richard Colbeck has been doing a strong job in terms of making sure all of that flows as best it can in the challenges of Omicron, into that sector.”
Last year, Senator Colbeck also came under fire for not being up to date with how many people had died in aged care during the pandemic and, later, for not knowing how many staff in the sector were vaccinated.
Earlier, committee chair Katy Gallagher said the crisis in aged care had resulted in thousands of positive cases and staff working their fingers to the bone.
“People in aged care who are living through this crisis would find that a bit hard to stomach while the system is in crisis,” the Labor senator told the ABC.
“We took that at face value, that he was working hard on this and having a hearing would disrupt that work, only to find out he was at the cricket not for one day, but three days.”
The aged care sector has been under intense pressure throughout the pandemic due to the spread of the virus and staffing shortages.
Senator Gallagher said it appeared Senator Colbeck was refusing to answer questions people in the sector were demanding responses to.
“It displays an arrogant complacency which is out of touch with people’s real life experience of the aged care system.”
Senator Gallagher said it was the responsibility of officials to make sure they were available to be held to account by the parliament.
“This is a responsibility of very well-paid senior public servants and ministers, who are required to do their job,” she said.
“[Appearing before the committee] is part of their job. It’s not an over and above or extra call on them, it’s fundamental to their role as public servants.”