‘Hopeless’ government just got worse

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“The strength that Meegan Fitzharris brought to the role was being prepared to stand up to her bureaucracy – a skill greatly lacking amongst current ACT ministers,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

THINGS have just got worse for the local Labor government. If you thought the current government was largely hopeless, you can now expect an even greater downhill run. 

Michael Moore.

The loss of the top-performing member of Andrew Barr’s team will mean a loss of skill, intellect and competency.

The inaugural speech of Meegan Fitzharris is telling. A large chunk of her introduction as a politician in February, 2015, was dedicated to her family. Not just her immediate family. She also included the NZ branch of the family, her parents-in-law and their families. Even then, it was clear that, as much as she loved politics, family would be a key driver for her and family would come first.

For an outsider it is difficult to understand the impact that ACT politics has on the families of Assembly Members – and particularly on ministers. As I have written in the past, while the MLA has the tools to respond to criticism, the families do not. Partners and children are not responsible for such decisions but often wear the flak without having the tools to defend against criticism. The MLA can use tools such as the floor of the Assembly or local media to challenge the critics. 

Even as she leaves the Assembly the criticisms don’t stop. Kirsten Lawson writing in “The Canberra Times” begins her comment with: “Meegan Fitzharris might have made a dog’s breakfast of health…”. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. 

What Lawson ought to have recognised was the “dog’s breakfast” was inherited. Perhaps this is acknowledged to a certain extent with “but in this she is little different from the health ministers who came before her”.

The strength that Fitzharris brought to the role was being prepared to stand up to her bureaucracy – a skill greatly lacking amongst current ACT ministers. 

The restructure she oversaw in ACT health was not just about putting lipstick on a pig. The considerable change in the ACT Health Directorate was courtesy of a minister who recognised a problem and followed through, in her words, using a process to “listen, advocate, explain and lead”.

The “dog’s breakfast” was, more than anything, about the culture of the Canberra Hospital. Meegan Fitzharris introduced both cultural and governance reviews as part of the process of tackling these issues. Hospitals are complex places and change does not happen quickly. 

As one of the earliest and most effective political commentators, Nicolo Machiavelli, emphasised: “He who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building”. 

Meegan Fitzharris has made it her business to “lay them afterwards”. However, it will be some time before the foundations that she built deliver outcomes. 

Building on those foundations will require a minister with strength and ability if the outcomes are to be realised.

Following her resignation, I asked Meegan Fitzharris, apart from the hospital, what were the issues on which she felt most pride. Not surprising was the role she played in delivering light rail for Canberra, and particularly for the people of Gungahlin who she represented as a Member for Yerrabi. Despite the position taken by the Liberal Party and the objection of so many Canberrans she did deliver. And it did not cost Labor an election.

Additionally, she pointed to her work on preventive health and well-being. The issue has gone beyond the health portfolio and is being embedded through government. What good is maintaining a focus on a stronger economy if it favours a few and the benefits are not directed to a healthier community?

As a minister, it is sometimes the small things that generate pride. Finally, providing funding for a paediatric palliative-care nurse finally dealt with an issue that came to her attention when she originally contested the 2012 election. 

Whether on small issues, or those with a major impact, the ACT Assembly and community will be worse off without Meegan Fitzharris’ intellect, competence and drive.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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