FOR the second year in a row, COVID overshadowed all else in 2021 – and that was especially true in the world of state politics.

Member for Mildura Ali Cupper said a lot of the past two years had been about “trying to help represent a community that was in a very unique position”.

“We were for the most part a long way away from the nearest COVID cases, for most of the two years,” she said.

“It wasn’t until the very last stages, where luckily most people were vaccinated, that we got those concerning numbers.”

She said this meant copping the brunt of Victoria’s restrictions, often without distinction between high case number areas, while also dealing with border rules from New South Wales and South Australia.

The chaotic introduction of some of the interstate restrictions was at times “an absolute circus”, she said, with sometimes different definitions being used on-the-ground compared with public statements.

Ms Cupper said it called for “the right amount of agitating” of the Victorian Government and the other states to appeal for balance and proportionality.

In between COVID dominating headlines, there was still the usual political manoeuvring and budget wins and losses.
With the next state election less than 12 months away, political opponents are well into the process of making plans to unseat Ms Cupper, an independent who got in by 253 votes in 2018.

She said securing $2 million to produce a master plan for future redevelopment of Mildura Base Public Hospital in this year’s budget was a “critical precursor” to a new hospital.

But she was aiming to see “money in the bank” for a new build next year – which would enable her to go to an election with funding secured for a new hospital, or at least the first stage of one.

Ms Cupper said in terms of infrastructure, the focus of her first term was health.

If re-elected, she said the second term would be about a “rail revolution” – returning the passenger train and having a 24-hour freight turnaround.

“What I want to be able to say at the end of this term (is) that we are light years ahead of where were were before … because we’ve had our hospital brought back to public management and we have money in the bank for a brand new build,” she said.

“Leading into the next term, if I’m lucky enough to be elected again, I’ll be warming the government up for the rail revolution.”

Ms Cupper took a political risk last December when she launched a coalition with the Reason Party.

It fell apart just five months later, but she said the gamble played a key role in bringing the government to the table on a new hospital.

“What happened at that particular point in time, just before the Reason Coalition happened, was the government had said no to the train and, in relation to the hospital, they said you’ll have to get in line and it’s a long line,” Ms Cupper said.

“And I thought, okay, I’m reading the writing on the wall here, and that’s saying we’re not ready to give you anything big ticket this term.

“I thought that is disrespectful to me and my electorate, we’re Victorians too, (so) I’m going to do everything I can, I’m going to exhaust every opportunity I have, even if it means a big political risk to me personally, to make sure we’ve got the leverage we need to get the sort of infrastructure we deserve.”

Ms Cupper said after the coalition announcement, she reopened the hospital conversation with the government and was told it was “doable”.

Among the other inclusions in this year’s budget was $2.38 million for a new fire station at Irymple.

Looking ahead to 2022, Ms Cupper said the hospital wasn’t the only thing on the agenda.

Funding for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre was high on the wish list.

“Unlike other communities where drug and alcohol rehab centres can be a hot potato and you can have people for and against, I have experienced not one shred of pushback from any section of our community about the need for a drug and alcohol rehab centre here,” she said.

“I’m hoping at the very least we can get some master plan money for that so again the ball is rolling.”

Also on the funding wish list was the Nichols Point sports precinct, Mildura West Primary School, Mallee Track Health in Ouyen, Robinvale health services, the intersection of Fitzroy Avenue and the Calder Highway, a permanent home for Arts Mildura, the hemp industry and the Kittyhawk museum were.

While health was the infrastructure priority, Ms Cupper said her policy “holy grail” was regional rates reform.

“That’s something we’ll continue to work on as well, hopefully with the Federal Government – there’s a role that the feds would have in all this, but if not we’ll just keep plugging away,” she said.

By MICHAEL Di FABRIZIO