Some might see Meegan Fitzharris as another casualty of a political system that does not support families and women in particular but she is having none of that.
If anything, her time in politics has been empowering, and for her that includes making the decision to leave.
“There is a level of autonomy in this role that many other jobs don’t come with,” she told Region Media. “It comes with responsibility as well, but I’m very empowered in the role as minister, including making the decision to leave, as hard as that was.”
It wasn’t the workload of her Health and Transport portfolios, or that she couldn’t stand the heat that came with it, that contributed to her decision to leave the Assembly.
The mother of three school-aged children, she wants a better work-family balance, and the timing of her departure comes in the context of next year’s election and the all-consuming demands that would entail.
With one child in high school and another moving up next year, Ms Fitzharris does not want to be physically and mentally absent at such a time.
“That’s where my focus wants to be and I want to spend time with them, they’re good fun and there will come a time when perhaps they won’t want to spend so much time with Mum and Dad,” she said.
Ms Fitzharris said her husband had been an incredible support and both had juggled their careers.
She maintains that politics is a job that people should aspire to and the Assembly, compared to the bearpit on the Hill, is a much more family-friendly environment with no travel and more hospitable sitting hours. “We need more good people in politics on all sides,” she said.
While she doesn’t have another campaign in her, she isn’t about to give up working and making a contribution, quite possibly in health, an area that has gotten under her skin.
“You learn a lot in this role about policy and effecting change and listening to people. Who knows what the future holds but I do want to keep working,” she said.
“I genuinely believe there needs to be more [health] reform in the federal system. If we don’t reform the arrangements between the states, territories and the Commonwealth we will be doing the community a disservice. We need to put more into prevention, early intervention and primary care.”
Ms Fitzharris also quashed speculation that Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s decision to stay on as leader for another election also contributed to her decision, saying not everybody who goes into politics covets the top job.
“In fact, I was really pleased that he was staying. The closer you get to understanding the role of the Chief Minister you realise how incredibly difficult it is, on that measure, it is a misconception that everyone who decides to enter politics would inevitably want to take on that role,” she said.
She rejected any notion that the twin big policy responsibilities of Health and Transport had taken their toll, and said she was happy with her achievements and believes her legacy would stand the test of time.
Some of the criticisms had made her bristle at times, but with light rail and the new bus network delivered and change underway in health after the workplace culture review, she leaves content.
In health, there was now genuine optimism and in public transport, while adjustments would still need to be made, there was now acceptance that Canberra could have a successful sustainable network.
“We’ll never again have an election I hope in the ACT that says the city is built for a car. That defining moment in the city’s history has passed. We won’t look back.”
Tributes flow in for Fitzharris
Chief Minister Andrew Barr led tributes to Ms Fitzharris, saying that while he had tried to talk her out of quitting, he fully respected and understood her decision.
“I support it, I support her and I always will,’’ he said.
Mr Barr said she left a legacy of important work such as light rail and long-term decisions across portfolios that she had led.
With an election on the horizon next year, Mr Barr said now was the time to decide whether to commit to another four years in the Assembly.
“I will miss her, her Labor colleagues will miss her, the Assembly will miss her, the people of Yerrabi will miss her,’’ he said.
“Everyone understands, and in politics we move forward, we necessarily have to.”
Cabinet colleague Rachel Stephen-Smith said she had been an outstanding Minister, representative and colleague, and would be greatly missed by Cabinet and caucus.
“I have always appreciated her support and good humour. I know this was a hard decision and I wish Meegan and her family all the very best,” she said.
Federal member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh said he was sad to see her leaving ACT politics. “Gungahlin has no stronger champion than Meegan. She’s been an effective minister, a terrific MLA and will be sorely missed by Labor friends and the Canberra community,” he said.
Former minister Simon Corbell said Ms Fitzharris has made a major contribution to the Canberra community and to the work of the ACT Labor Government. “Passionate about Gungahlin and better services for our city. It’s a big decision to move beyond politics, she will be missed but much opportunity awaits,” he said.
Opposition Leader Alistair Coe, who led many attacks on Ms Fitzharris in the Assembly, was gracious.
“During her time in the Assembly, in addition to being a local member, she has presided over construction of the light rail project and many changes in the health system. Her workload, particularly in the health portfolio, was extremely challenging yet she was always professional and committed to her duties,” he said.
“Life in public office demands long hours and personal sacrifices. I thank her and her family for all that they have contributed to the Territory. She has been a strong local member and prominent Minister in the Government.
“I wish her and her family all the best for the next stage in their journey.”
Acting Greens leader Caroline Le Couteur said she had represented her community, both as Member for Molonglo and Yerrabi, with great commitment and dedication, and had been a passionate advocate for Gungahlin.
“In each of her respective portfolios, Minister Fitzharris has made positive contributions to our progressive jurisdiction, and we particularly note her work overseeing the implementation of Canberra’s successful Stage 1 light rail project,” she said.
“In recent years, Minister Fitzharris has worked especially closely in the ‘umbrella’ Health portfolio with Greens Minister for Mental Health Shane Rattenbury at a time of significant transition for the health sector. Her leadership at this time has been invaluable in improving Canberra’s health system,” she said.
Chair of the Public Transport Association Damien Haas thanked Ms Meegan Fitzharris for her excellent work in a demanding portfolio.
“In her time as Transport Minister she has overseen the delivery of Canberra’s first stage of light rail, a city changing project that came in under budget, and introduced an integrated public transport system designed for a changing city,” he said.
“She has been a strong supporter of the passenger experience, and introduced many small changes to the way people use public transport such as bike racks on every bus, using a tap-on card, and letting passengers exit from the back door of buses – something that generations of Canberrans had been trained not to do.