Chief Minister Andrew Barr has allocated new portfolios after the shock announcement that Meegan Fitzharris is to leave politics.
The new Health Minister will be Rachel Stephen-Smith and the new Transport Minister will be Chris Steel, while Mr Barr will take on Higher Education.
Mr Barr said a new minister would be announced in coming months but Ms Stephen-Smith and Mr Steel would retain their current responsibilities.
Former public servant and Indian community leader Deepak-Raj Gupta, the next best performing Labor candidate from the 2016 poll, will take her place as MLA for Yerrabi in the Legislative Assembly.
A high-profile senior Minister and one of the favourites to succeed Andrew Barr as Chief Minister, Ms Fitzharris, announced on Wednesday morning that she is quitting politics, standing down from Cabinet from 1 July and leaving the Legislative Assembly in coming weeks.
In a statement, Ms Fitzharris says her decision is a personal one and stems from a desire to better balance her family life.
“This has been an incredibly difficult decision for me, but it is the right decision and will allow a new member of our team to come into the Assembly prior to the 2020 election,” she said.
“I have loved being an MLA and am grateful to the people of Yerrabi for electing me in 2016. I am disappointed I will not be able to fulfil my responsibility as an MLA for the remainder of the term.
“I hope to continue to make a contribution to our amazing city in life after politics. I will continue to be a working mum, something my husband and I have balanced since each of our children were born. Now is the time for a new balance and new opportunities.”
Ms Fitzharris, a former New Zealander, is married to Labor figure Pierre Huetter, who works in the construction industry and was involved in the abortive GWS Giants bid to redevelop Manuka Oval. They have three children.
She has borne the heavy responsibilities of Transport and Health, leading the light rail project and grappling with multiple issues at ACT Health, particularly at Canberra Hospital.
The Opposition has hammered her over the bullying and harassment complaints that led to the workplace culture review in the ACT’s health at and the ongoing bus network changes, regularly calling for her head.
But Ms Fitzharris says in her statement that she is proud of the Government’s achievements in these areas, ‘although at times it has not been easy’.
“I would like to thank the Chief Minister Andrew Barr for his leadership and unrelenting support for me, and my caucus colleagues and friends who are wonderful people, deeply committed to making Canberra a better place,” she said.
ANU political analyst and academic Dr Andrew Hughes says the career path for Ms Fitzharris was always going to be limited after Chief Minister Andrew Barr decided to contest the next election.
“If he wins, and I’m not saying that he will, then he’ll want to see out his term,” he said.
The Coalition’s Federal election win also means that there are fewer alternative job options for Mr Barr.
Dr Hughes says that the Chief Minister’s dealings with the Federal government over issues including the Mr Fluffy fallout have not earned him friends in the Coalition, especially among the hard right in the Federal Liberal Party, probably contributing to his decision to stay in his current job.
He says that Ms Fitzharris “got the rough end of a very pointy stick” with the health and transport portfolios. Dr Hughes believes the unpopular changes to the bus network also have the potential to be a damaging sleeper issue for Labor.
“Changes that affect people’s everyday lives signal to the electorate whether the Government is effective or not,” he said. “The anger over the bus network is very real. Had she gone to the electorate after 12 months as Chief Minister, I think she could have lost the election as people blamed her for the mess.
“It’s the kind of issue that can be the final nail in the coffin.”
Dr Hughes said that more broadly, Labor believes one of the lessons from the Federal election is that Bill Shorten did not resonate with ordinary voters. In the local context, he says decision makers think that current deputy Yvette Berry is a more appealing potential Chief Minister than Ms Fitzharris.
Ms Fitzharris, a failed 2012 election candidate and then chief of staff to Minister Barr, entered the Assembly in 2015 on a countback after former Chief Minister Katy Gallagher left the Assembly to pursue a seat in the Senate.
She said representing the Canberra community, particularly the people living in Gungahlin, had been a privilege and a huge responsibility.
“I joined the Australian Labor Party 17 years ago as a newly minted Australian citizen because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. And the Labor Party has enabled me to work with and for the Canberra community to make our city a place where people can live good and happy lives,”
“I love living in Canberra with my family and working to make sure our city is vibrant, sustainable and full of opportunities.
“I have been incredibly grateful for the opportunity to represent the electorates of Molonglo, and now Yerrabi, since 2015, and working to bring about positive change for our community and bring investment into the Gungahlin region.”
She thanked the community for sharing their views, ideas and encouragement and the many stakeholders and representative groups she has worked with, for their advocacy and helping her to learn more about her portfolios.
“I thank the thousands of ACT public servants I have worked with and sought to support. They do fantastic work for our community in very big and small ways,” she said.
Ms Fitzharris paid tribute to her former and current staff, whom she called rocks of her life as an MLA.
“They have worked so hard and I could not have done my job without them,” she said.