Aged Care Services Minister Senator Richard Colbeck has defended his choice to attend the cricket instead of a COVID-19 inquiry in parliament, saying he needed to “balance” his portfolios despite the severe Omicron outbreak.
Colbeck was questioned at a Senate Select Committee on Wednesday, more than two weeks after he declined a request to attend the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on January 14. Instead, Colbeck – who is also the sport minster – went to the Ashes test match in Hobart, which started on the same day and went until January 16.
“I did make a specific decision about the balance of my portfolios,” he told committee on Wednesday.
“The Test match in Hobart was a significant event for Tasmania. As minister for sport I had to be conscious of that as an issue. I was very cognisant of the circumstances the [aged care] sector was in.”
Colbeck went on to say he “spent the predominant part of the day” of January 14th “working on the aged care outbreak” and also worked that weekend.
“All through that weekend I continued to work on matters in both portfolios, particularly aged care, even though it was a weekend and I attended the Test match.
“It was decision I made – and I have to live with it.
“Other people will make judgements about it I’m sure, plenty already have.”
At the time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he could “understand the criticism” Colbeck faced after attending the cricket but chose not to take any action on the matter.
“He’ll take that criticism on the chin and he’ll get back to work,” Morrison told Neil Breen on 4BC.
Labor’s Senator Katy Gallagher asked if Colbeck thought he should keep his job going forward.
“On the days of the test match I wasn’t just at the cricket,” he replied. “I was actually working the problems with the officials in the department to work to manage the issues in aged care, so it wasn’t one thing or the other, I was actually working on both.”
Colbeck also maintained the aged care sector was performing “extremely well” amid the Omid outbreak and denied it was in a crisis.
“I know it is certainly working very, very hard to manage the impacts, particularly of the Omicron outbreak, but my view, and the data actually supports that, is that the sector is performing and has performed exceptionally well in the work that it’s doing,” he said.
Gallagher pointed to evidence that showed while Colbeck was at the cricket, many aged care facilities were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, and still are.
There have now been 657 deaths in aged care during the pandemic, including 471 deaths this year. During the week Colbeck went to the cricket, 40 per cent of aged care facilities in Australia were locked down.
Colbeck also said that 34 per cent of aged care residents have not received their booster vaccination, but could not say how many of the 471 people who have died in aged care this year had received a booster shot.
Senator Jacqui Lambie sarcastically thanked Colbeck for “showing up” to the hearing on Wednesday, and asked whether he had been honest when he said he could not attend on January 14 because it would “divert resources” from the COVID-19 response.
“It looks like … you would rather go to the cricket and drink frothies,” she said.