High-flying minister jumped before she was dumped

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 September, 2008, 12:00am


A man is not finished when he is defeated,' former US president Richard Nixon said. 'He is finished when he quits.' This notion did not occur to Reba Meagher, the high-flying Labor MP who departed state Parliament at the weekend.

'I want to leave with some dignity - that's the best thing I can do,' an emotional Ms Meagher told her constituents in the working-class seat of Cabramatta. 'The party needs generational change and I am happy to play my part in that.'

In truth, the former - and widely loathed - health minister was about to be axed by the state's newly elevated premier, Nathan Rees. Ms Meagher jumped before she could be dumped from the cabinet.

Despite her lacklustre attempts at political rhetoric, it was not the sort of exit she might have planned. Ms Meagher was widely tipped as a future Labor premier when she entered state Parliament as an ambitious 29-year-old in 1994. Coming from a solid blue-collar background, the tough-talking MP cut her teeth in Labor Party politics at university. Her potential was spotted by then New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, who elevated her to the cabinet as minister for fair trading. Supporters praised her toughness, competence and aptitude for hard work.

Fourteen years later, the blonde divorcee is perhaps the most hated politician in the state (although two other former front-benchers, Michael Costa and Frank Sartor, provide stiff competition). So poor was her performance as health minister that the media nicknamed her 'the Grim Reba'.

During her time in the portfolio the state's public health system lurched from one crisis to another. In one notorious case a pregnant woman miscarried in a hospital toilet. Other revelations concerned a 91-year-old patient forced to spend the night in a storage cupboard and raw sewage leaking into the wards of a country hospital. Doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers mutinied against Ms Meagher's indecision.

With the hospital system collapsing around her ears, the minister embarked on a whistle-stop tour of Sydney's busiest emergency departments, finally laying the blame for the public health crisis on Sydney's cold weather and an outbreak of flu: 'We have come off the back of a difficult winter, a cold winter, and we have had a particular flu strain - so demand for emergency is increasing.' The explanation convinced no one.

Her political reputation reached its nadir in August when Ms Meagher kept her ministerial driver waiting all night while she was partying with her boyfriend at an exclusive city nightclub - taking a taxi home instead.

'The minister didn't even bother telling her driver he could go home to his pregnant wife,' fumed Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine. The next day the minister was due to address the state's nurses association, but arrived two hours late. The incident reinforced public perceptions that Ms Meagher was losing touch with ordinary people. She certainly enjoyed the trappings of success, driving a BMW and preferring to live in Sydney's leafier inner-city suburbs instead of her electorate of Cabramatta, home to a large Vietnamese population.

Commentators have been picking over Ms Meagher's slim political legacy. Despite her numerous ministerial appointments, it is difficult to identify any great achievements or milestones. 'She held seven ministries', was the kindest tribute paid to her.