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The minister for not caring

Aug 28, 2020 • 16m 31s

In a week where the minister for aged care was unable to answer questions about the crisis in his portfolio, and details emerged about a branch stacking scandal in his own party, the Prime Minister is finding himself under increasing pressure. Today, Paul Bongiorno on whether we should be expecting more from our politicians.

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The minister for not caring

297 • Aug 28, 2020

The minister for not caring

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

In a week where the federal minister for aged care was unable to answer questions about the crisis in his portfolio… and details emerged about a branch stacking scandal in his own party, the Prime Minister is finding himself under increasing pressure.

Scott Morrison is continuing his strategy of shifting blame to the states… but is he falling short of the standards he himself has set?

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on whether we should be expecting more from our politicians.

RUBY:

Paul. Things haven't gone well for the aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, in this past week. What happened?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, last Friday, Richard Colbeck appeared before the Senate's Covid-19 committee. And I have to say his performance was one of the least impressive I've seen. The problem for Colbeck began when the chair of the committee, Labour's Katy Gallagher, asked about the Coronavirus death toll for aged care residents.

Archival tape -- Katy Gallagher:
“How many residents of aged care facilities funded and regulated by the Australian government have passed away from Covid-19?”

PAUL:

As the aged care minister, he surely should have been expecting that question.

Archival tape -- Richard Colbeck
“I'll just have to look at my latest report, chair. That might take me a moment…”

PAUL:

But there was an excruciating 35 seconds silence while Colbeck fumbled through his papers.
To the horror of his parliamentary colleagues, especially the prime minister, it appears Colbeck came to the hearing without doing his homework.

Archival tape -- Katy Gallagher:
“Minister, you weren't aware of that number?”

Archival tape -- Richard Colbeck

“I was just trying to find my latest sit-rep, chair. It wasn't in the frontline details of those figures. I have got the details, I just couldn't find it to hand, I'm sorry.”

PAUL:

The chair, Katy Gallagher, then asked a departmental official and she was told as of 8:00 am on Thursday, August 20, it was 254. Well, Gallagher then followed up with another question, and once again, Colbeck drew a blank.

Archival tape -- Katy Gallagher

“Minister, how many residents of aged care facilities funded and regulated by the Australian government have Covid-19 today?”

Archival tape -- Richard Colbeck
“...again, Senator, I don't have the report with the actual detail in front of me…”

PAUL:

An incredulous Gallagher then pointedly summed up the situation and reminded him of his responsibility.

Archival tape -- Katy Gallagher

“I mean...you’ve just... you haven’t...you don't know how many people have passed away. You’re now telling me you don't know how many people have the infection. You’re the minister for aged care…”

RUBY:

And so what was the fallout from all of that, for Colbeck?

PAUL:

Well, you know that a minister is in deep trouble - he's in deep doo doo - when his prime minister is asked at the first possible opportunity the media has, if he has confidence in his minister

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter

“Shouldn’t the aged care minister be sacked for incompetence after his appearance before the Senate this morning, and if not, can you say you have full confidence in his ability to be across his brief?”

PAUL:

Well, Scott Morrison, through gritted teeth, answered in the affirmative

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison

“The actions that the minister has taken, the more than a billion dollars that I have noted to you today that he has been directly responsible for ensuring has been committed into this sector…”

PAUL:

But with Labor signalling that when Parliament resumed on the following Monday, and that aged care would be top of the agenda, and there'd be demands for Colebeck’s head, well, the prime minister had to come up with something more substantial.

And a couple of days later, mid-morning on the Monday, as selected MPs and senators began arriving at parliament - resplendent with their face masks, too, quite a sight - Morrison's office contacted the opposition. The prime minister would be making a statement on indulgence at the beginning of Question Time about the current state of the pandemic.

Archival tape -- Speaker

“The prime minister on indulgence.”

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison
“Thank you. Mr. Speaker, I join with the leader of the opposition in welcoming the members…”

PAUL:

Now, Morrison's indulgence speech, which ran for 20 minutes, didn't mention his hapless minister. He was clearly trying to steer the conversation away from last week's disappointing performance from Colbeck. It was left to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese in his 20 minute reply.

Archival tape -- Speaker

“The leader of the opposition on indulgence.”

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese

“Thanks very much, Mr Speaker.”

PAUL:

Albanese told Parliament that Colbeck’s Friday committee appearance showed the minister was falling far short.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese

“And last Friday, we saw, frankly, a minister appear before the Covid-19 committee, who's just not up to this task. Just not up to it.”

PAUL:

And, you know, adding insult to injury, at the same time as this was happening in the House of Reps over in the Senate, Colbeck was stumbling again.

RUBY:

Really? What happened?

PAUL:

Well, though Hansard has expunged the gaffe from the written record, one point eight million viewers nationwide saw him misread his notes.

Archival tape -- Richard Colbeck

“Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. And every single one of those three...hundred and eighty five... thirty five...every one of those 335 deaths is an absolutely-...is an absolute tragedy. Every single one of those…”

PAUL:

And by the look of his face, he knew that he had stuffed up yet again. Now, mind you, this really is a metaphor, in my view, of just how badly the government and the prime minister, in fact, are handling the aged care issues in this crisis.

RUBY:

Yeah. And this must have made things worse for Colbeck, Paul. So what did the Prime Minister do?

PAUL:

Well, in his 20 minutes indulgent speech, and later in Question Time, I'd have to say, Morrison shielded Colbeck behind the government's world beating performance. The prime minister named eleven of the world's developed nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom, for having fared much worse than Australia, though at the same time, he sidelined Colbeck from key decisions in aged care, handing responsibility to Health Minister Greg Hunt, instead. Hunt, of course, is the senior minister in the portfolio.

RUBY:

So he was sacked?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, not quite. Look, I've got to say, the calls are getting louder for that to happen. After stripping Richard Colbeck of some responsibility, Morrison and his most senior Victorian minister, Josh Frydenberg, the treasurer spent the parliamentary week doing all in their power to lay the blame for the crisis in the health care facilities in Victoria, entirely at the feet of the premier, Daniel Andrews.

According to them, Andrews had failed against the gold standard, set by the liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales, when it came to successful containment through efficient tracing and tighter hotel quarantine.

Ironically, Victoria's health crisis is providing something of a cover for Morrison from the bitter internecine warfare that's tearing apart the state's liberal division.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul, let's talk some more about the scandal that the Liberals are facing in Victoria. What are the allegations, and how high up does this go?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, one of Morison's ministers, the assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, is accused of using taxpayer funded electorate office staff to organise branch stacking to further his right faction's policy agenda, and more to the point, I think, takeover of the party.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter

“Tonight, an investigation by 60 Minutes and The Age newspaper reveals the shady dealings of Victorian Liberal powerbroker Marcus Bastian. “

PAUL:

The 60 Minutes TV programme and The Age have been given access to an avalanche of recorded conversations and emails every bit as unsavoury as the cache they produced a few months back exposing dirty factional dealings in the state's Labour Party.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter

“Victorian Liberal Party has launched a forensic membership audit to determine whether the members signed up in the past five years are genuine…”

PAUL:

Both of them, of course, are about power grabs and power competition. And the fact of the matter is, you don't get this sort of stuff unless there's a pretty bitter feud going on.

And adding to the Liberals’ discomfort, the usually supportive Australian newspaper got into the act midweek with its own batch of leaked internal correspondence, adding racism and religious bigotry to the power struggles.

And former Abbott government minister, the conservative Kevin Andrews, is also embroiled in the allegations. But he, like Sukkar, denies wrongdoing. And both of them have referred their staff hirings to the federal finance department for investigation.

Now I've got to say to you Ruby, just how it will distinguish between party operatives and genuine electorate staffers is anybody's guess. But that step was good enough for Morrison.

RUBY:

Right. So Scott Morrison has addressed this then?

PAUL:

Well, in a sort of fashion, the prime minister has again adopted his innocent bystander pose, telling reporters on Wednesday that he's been busy dealing with the Covid crisis and creating jobs to be worried about this; It's as if the prime minister is saying to us that he can't walk and chew gum at the same time.

And it has to be remembered. He wasn't so forgiving of Albanese after the Labour branch stacking allegations that were justice sensationally reported back in June.

RUBY:

Mm. How has Anthony Albanese taken that?

PAUL:

Not surprisingly, Albanese was far from impressed with the double standard. He said Labour acted immediately. It expelled a minister from the party and it imposed federal intervention to clean up the Victorian branch.

Archival tape -- Fran Kelly

“Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese joined us in our Parliament House studios. It's a busy studios this morning - Anthony Albanese, welcome back to breakfast.”

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese

“Good morning, Fran. the Victorian Liberals…”

PAUL:

Albanese told Radio National's Fran Kelly this week that someone should tell Scott Morrison that he's in charge of the Liberal Party.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese

“...that this is a scandal, that he's assistant treasurer, he’s in it up to his neck in his own words here, and that his position is untenable.”

PAUL:

And Albanese said the prime minister's making a pattern of ducking responsibility.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese

“Now, once again, a bit like aged care, he's saying it's not his responsibility…”

RUBY:

Paul, in the last couple of months, we've had branch stacking scandals involving competing factions in both major parties in Victoria - the state, which is currently in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic - what sort of a message is this sending to the public about how much faith they should have in their politicians?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, there's no doubt it undermines faith in our politicians. I don't think it's surprising that in a contested democracy like Australia and with political parties themselves expected to be democratic, that we'd see competition. But it's how they do it and why they do it.

And if it's the exercise of power for power's sake, or for self aggrandisement, and if it throws up, you know, nothing more than clever party hacks, then the calibre of people that then go into our parliament, state and federal leaves a lot to be desired. And I think we are seeing some evidence of that.

RUBY:

Mm. And how damaging is all of this to the federal government, taking into account both the branch stacking scandal and the failures in aged care?

PAUL:

Well, it looks and smells like a mess.
And I have to say that for Morrison, sidelining Richard Colbeck is easier than taking on a powerbroker like Michael Sukkar; as one backbencher said to me, if you take Sukkar’s ministry off him, it leaves a man like him - a factional warlord - a lot of time to get up to some mischief. But both of these ministers are denting Morrison's claim in his speech on Monday to the parliament that he didn't deny the high expectations that are rightly set for us as Australians.

RUBY:

Paul, thank you so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thanks Ruby, bye.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today…

The Christchurch terrorist has been sentenced to life without parole, the first time such a sentence has been handed down in New Zealand.

After three days of survivor testimony Justice Cameron Mander said the terrorist was neither contrite nor ashamed.

The shooter has waived his right to appeal and will live out the rest of his life in jail.

And athletes across the US have taken a stand against police violence and racial injustice, with games across a number of codes called off following a strike.

The strike was prompted by the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. He was shot in the back by police in Wisconsin on Sunday as he tried to enter his car. His shooting has become the latest incident to prompt outrage over police brutality.

Games across the NBA, WNBA, major league baseball and soccer have been called off, and tennis superstar Naomi Osaka announced that she will not play in the Western & Southern Open semifinals.

In a week where the minister for aged care was unable to answer questions about the crisis in his portfolio, and details emerged about a branch stacking scandal in his own party, the Prime Minister is finding himself under increasing pressure. Today, Paul Bongiorno on whether we should be expecting more from our politicians.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

Aged-care failures continue to plague government in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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297: The minister for not caring