Election tightens in Victoria’s Benambra

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Three political opponents in North East Victoria have one thing in common: a sense that the regions are not getting their share of the toll.

But candidates have very different ideas about how to change that if they succeed on Election Day.

Bordered by the Murray River and the Alpine National Park, the seat of Benambra has been a conservative heartland since before federation.

Incumbent Liberal Bill Tilley has held the seat since 2006, but Independent Jacqui Hawkins is hot on his heels after narrowly missing out in 2018.

Mr Tilley takes nothing for granted and believes the National Liberals have a chance to form a government.

“My team and I are committed to doing our best,” Mr. Tilley told AAP.

“There is certainly a mood for change in government.”

Ms Hawkins says Benambra’s appetite for an independent representative has grown since 2018, fueled by concerns over access to healthcare and a perception that Mr Tilley is being overlooked by Labour.

Much of Benambra is in the Federal District of Indi, which reinstated independent Helen Haines for a second term in federal elections this year.

“People can see the ballot and they’re not impressed, so they know independents can work across the political divide,” Hawkins told AAP.

“That’s not to say the incumbent didn’t do a job. It’s just that he wasn’t effective,” Ms Hawkins said.

Mr Tilley said one need only walk through the communities of Benambra to see the contributions to schools, early learning centers and roads he has provided under governments of all stripes.

“There will always be shadow boxing between the opposition and the government of the day, but eventually those conversations can come to an agreement and get some things done,” Mr Tilley said.

Benambra Labor candidate Mark Tait said Mr Tilley has been a hard worker for the region but faces a difficult road as an opposition MP.

“It’s just very difficult for him to get things done when he’s in opposition,” Mr Tait told AAP.

The Labor candidate also describes Ms Hawkins as enthusiastic, hardworking and a good opponent.

The hints of mutual respect, despite the political implications, provide momentary relief in an often negative, emotionally charged and bitter campaign across the state.

On the first day of pre-election in Wodonga, a Labor volunteer broke his leg and required surgery after an altercation with a voter angry at the COVID-19 lockdowns and the Labor Party.

The injured man, released nearly a week later, is not filing a complaint but a police investigation is underway.

According to the Victorian Electoral Commission, 13,219 advance and mail-in votes were cast for Benambra on Thursday evening.

Access to healthcare is a key issue for voters, and the divisions are clearest over the Victoria and NSW governments’ decision to upgrade Albury Base Hospital across the border rather than building a new campus on an empty site.

Mr Tait backs Labour’s choice to upgrade the brownfield site, Mr Tilley insists a new hospital is the only way forward and Ms Hawkins – while backing the bipartisan and cross-state commitment to border health infrastructure – said she would fight for a new development if elected on Saturday.

Mr. Tilley accused Ms. Hawkins of closing.

“You can’t turn around,” he said.

“You have to be able to have the strength and the courage to tell your community exactly what you think…and you have to be able to read the play and know what the community is really asking for.”

Ms Hawkins denied any job changes.

“I had my policy posted overnight, on my website, very clearly articulating that blank site was the option,” she told AAP.

Labor has not been clear on the current role of Wodonga Hospital, but maintains it will not close.

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