With the seat of Mildura firmly a target for the Coalition to regain at the next state election, Victorian Liberal Leader, Michael O’Brien, was in town this week talking up the merits and importance of the region to the state’s economy.
While in Mildura, Mr O’Brien met with Council, small business owners and a number of other stakeholders, holding wide ranging discussions.
Mr O’Brien, who was accompanied by Member for Northern Victoria, Wendy Lovell, said he’s always had a high regard for Mildura and has fond memories of his frequent visits here with his family when he was a young boy.
“I spent many childhood summers holidaying up in Mildura and so it is a very familiar place to me,” Mr O’Brien said.
“My family used to stay in the local motels or sometimes we would go camping at Hattah-Kulkyne National Park and I always loved getting up to Mildura.
“The last time I was here was about three years ago, so it’s been a longtime between drinks.
“I was planning to get back last year, but the Premier decided to keep me confined to quarters, as he did most of Melbourne, so it wasn’t really an option then!”
Mr O’Brien said that Mildura is an important city to the state and he doesn’t think it gets the attention it deserves from Spring Street.
“I’m about making sure that Mildura is front-and-centre of all the discussions that go on in state politics,” he said.
“It’s a significant region. It contributes a lot to Victoria and deserves to have the attention.”
Mr O’Brien said that politicians need to get out of Melbourne to meet more people and to do more listening and learning.
“I find getting out of Melbourne and listening to people is really important,” he said.
“I think if you really want to find out what’s going on, politicians need to shut-up a little more and do more listening to what people are saying and that’s what I’m doing.
“I met with some small business operators and had a really good lunch with them today.
“They told me about what’s happening here in Mildura and how their businesses are going and what they need to be able to grow and employ more staff.
“They were pleased with our small business support announcements recently, particularly our plans to cut the level of payroll tax and the fee rebates.”
Mr O’Brien said that he was acutely aware of the shortages of medical specialists in Mildura, which he said is a matter of concern.
“I was talking to people about a range of other issues, including the local hospital and the access to specialists, which is clearly an area of concern for a lot of people up here,” he said.
“The management and staff do a great job at the hospital, but in this state, hospital waiting lists and ambulance wait times have never been higher.
“When a government fails the basics, like getting you an ambulance when you need one, or an operation when you need one, you have to question how you can keep supporting them.
“The fact is, Victoria does have a health and ambulance crisis at the moment, and it’s a basic job of government to get those things right.
“This government has been in office for 17 of the last 21 years and labor has let down Mildura.
“Now there is talk about amalgamations or mergers with other hospitals.
“Do the people of Mildura and Sunraysia really want to see decisions about their health care being run out of Bendigo?”
Mr O’Brien said he was impressed with the opportunities that abound in Mildura region.
“I think there are many opportunities in Mildura, but it needs more attention from the state government to facilitate these.
“People in Mildura are pretty resilient, but there’s no doubt that the lockdowns knocked them pretty hard,” he said.
“Not just last year, when a lot of the tourists who would normally have come from other states and from Melbourne where prevented from doing so, but also the five-day lockdown this year, over the Valentine’s Day weekend.
“This was a huge blow to confidence.
“People thought, “we’ve come through 2020, we’re back on track” and then Daniel Andrews hit that big red button under the State of Emergency powers, which threw us back into lockdown, which saw a lot of businesses suffer a huge amount of lost bookings, as they were forced to close down for five days. It did a lot of damage.
“What we really need to do is back small businesses – give them confidence that we’re not going to blow the recovery – and the most important thing we need, is a state government that will not make a mess of the recovery.
It needs to show that it has plans to back small business and create more jobs.”
Mr O’Brien said that in his view the problem with the government is that it doesn’t know what to do with small business.
“Most people in the Labor Government have never worked in small business or ever operated one,” he said.
“They just don’t understand it. Labor is far more comfortable dealing with big business and big unions, whereas the Liberal Party, is the party of small business and always has been.
“Small business employs more Victorians than any other sector.
“Small business is the sector that we need to be ‘firing-up’ if this state is going to recover from all the damage caused by these COVID lockdowns.
“The fact is, Victoria has the second worst unemployment of any state in the country at the moment and if we want to get back to where we want our state to be, it has to be through a small business let recovery.
“Not more taxes, not more charges, not more red tape, we need the opposite of that, and that’s what our tax package is all about.”
Mr O’Brien acknowledged that if the Coalition was elected at the next state election due in November 2022, they would inherit a huge budget deficit.
“You have to have a plan. The State Government doesn’t have a plan,” he said.
“They go day-to-day from press release to press release – there’s no strategy.
“If we want to get our budget back into balance and start getting our debt under control, we need to grow the economy.
“Labor’s approach to the economy is to tax it – so they can spend it.
“My view is you have to reduce tax burden, back small business and create jobs.
“That’s how you grow the economy and a growing economy will balance the budget.”
Mr O’Brien said he felt optimistic about the Coalition’s chances of forming government at the next election and winning the seat of Mildura, but he was in no way taking anything for granted.
“Mildura is a fantastic part of Victoria, but every time I come here, I’m surprised the city the size of Mildura seems to have so little investment from the State Government,” he said.
“A city of this size that was closer to Melbourne, Labor would be looking after it.
“The local member, Ali Cupper has previously formed a coalition with the Reason Party, which in my view is basically a wing of the Labor Party.
“And so I think the people of Mildura have a chance to be part of a positive change for Victoria and I hope they will look at what the Liberal Party has to offer over the next 18 months.”