For Jenny Aitchison it’s easily the biggest notch on her political belt.
A long, drawn-out, seven-year battle to give Maitland the hospital it so desperately wanted.
It started before she was in parliament, when the Liberals announced plans for a new Lower Hunter Hospital in 2011, and finished on Thursday when the government back flipped on plans for a not-for-profit organisation to build and run the hospital.
In boxing terms, it was a brutal 15-rounder with punches above and below the belt, until only she remained standing … cut and bruised for sure, but triumphant.
When The Mercury spoke to her on Saturday – the day after Brad Hazzard, the Minister for Health, had finally acknowledged that the new hospital would be fully government funded, she was still beaming.
“I’m overjoyed,” she said. “I feel even better than when I won the election for the seat of Maitland.”
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From day one this was the issue that she was committed to, passionate about. It was the base of her pitch to the voters of Maitland, and it was the issue she took with unwavering tenacity into the government chamber in March of 2015 .
“I remember my first question in parliament was to the then Health Minister Jillian Skinner. I asked: ‘when will Maitland see its first patients in the new hospital?’” she recalled.
“Jillian Skinner stood up and answered ‘when it’s built’. And then she went on to speak about all these other health things that had nothing to do with the question.
“It was totally dismissive and I was really upset about that. Not for me personally, I get upset that a Minister can disrespect a whole electorate like that.
I think I’ve shown in parliament that I won’t be bullied, I won’t be pushed around, that I’ll stand up and fight for my constituents. And I think that has earned me a grudging respect from the other side of the chamber.Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison
“I was asking a question on behalf of the people of Maitland – a question that was fair and deserved an answer – so to be so arrogantly dismissed, well, I thought it was rude to the whole city of Maitland.”
Not used to being so obviously fobbed off, Aitchison bit back. Make no mistake, under the trademark red hair and red dress, there’s a pitbull determination.
It meant that she was kicked out of parliament twice in her first two weeks, which is believed to be a parliamentary record.
At the time she was criticised by her political opponents, who pointed out that she could hardly represent her electorate from the sidelines.
But she said she had no intention of changing her ways – and she hasn’t.
Nearly three years up the track she’s been removed from the chamber “about 10 times”, including a couple where she was asked to leave the building altogether.
It’s not something she wears as a badge of honour, but she’s hardly fazed by it either.
“It’s not that big a thing, although obviously it’s not something you set out to do,” she says.
“I’ll say this though, I think I’ve shown in parliament that I won’t be bullied, I won’t be pushed around, that I’ll stand up and fight for my constituents.
“And I think that has earned me a grudging respect from the other side of the chamber.”
While Aitchison was undoubtedly the face of the hospital stoush, she points out it was not a fight she could win alone.
The Health Services Union, NSW Nurses and Midwives Union of NSW, the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation and Maitland Community Unions Alliance all played a part.
And all the volunteers who gave their time whenever it was needed to organise rallies, campaigns, and meetings. She mentions the Mercury too.
So, was there ever a time when she thought she might be wrong, that a Public Private Partnership might not be such a bad thing?
“Never. We had a petition with 25,000 signatures . . . 25,000,” she emphasises.
“Everywhere I went people were telling me to keep fighting, so I did.
“Besides, when a hospital isn’t government funded, so many grey areas arise. What happens to things like assisted dying – whatever you views are on that – or IVF, or sterilisation … suddenly you have a bottom line, profits and losses that come into the equation.
“And what about staffing levels? The public sector has set nursing ratios that must be adhered to, but the private sector just says staffing must be ‘adequate’. Who determines adequate?
“No, there was no doubt a city growing the rate that Maitland is needed a public hospital.”
So did she ever think she would lose?
“The lowest moment was when I got kicked out of the press conference on the hospital site by Scot MacDonald. I thought then ‘they’re going to do this. They’re actually going to defy common sense and do this’. That was the lowest moment, for sure.”
It’s fair to say that both Aitchsion and MacDonald both saved the 64c postage on a Christmas card to each other this year. They have a capacity to get under each other’s skin, but that’s a story for another day.
Today is Aitchison’s moment in the sun.
So with this mission accomplished, what’s next?
“I want to see the hospital built first,” she says.
“After that it’s local schools. We currently have a $12 million maintenance backlog. Drive around, take a look at the number of demountable classrooms. And the city keeps growing every day. This is a big issue.”
Education Minister Rob Stokes’ life is suddenly going to get a lot more interesting.