Visa nightmare for Irish woman injured in Flinders Street attack
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Visa nightmare for Irish woman injured in Flinders Street attack

Cara Mullan was excited to be working at a female-driven recruitment consultancy in Melbourne.

The Irish woman, 26, was in Australia on a working holiday visa. The company she had just started  working for, Think Talent, was already in the process of lodging a sponsorship visa application for Ms Mullan when she was seriously injured on December 21 when 19 people were hit by a car in Flinders Street.

Staff members from Think Talent return to the spot on Flinders street where they were injured last year in the Flinders street attack. (L to R) Ainsley Johnstone, Cara Mullan and Natalie Firth.

Staff members from Think Talent return to the spot on Flinders street where they were injured last year in the Flinders street attack. (L to R) Ainsley Johnstone, Cara Mullan and Natalie Firth.

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

She had head injuries and was left in a wheelchair for months, and has improved but is still recovering, physically and emotionally.

Six of her work colleagues were also impacted: one had head injuries, another a fractured leg; two were there when the incident took place and another two were first responders.

While they were dealing with the fall-out from the incident, the government changed its sponsorship conditions, ruling Ms Mullan meaning she would no longer be eligible under the new rules on her current salary.

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Her bosses Ainsley Johnstone and Natalie Firth are angry that they have not been able to sponsor  Ms Mullan on the basis of the pre-January 17 conditions, especially given recent revelations of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's interventions to help au pairs who had been detained.

Mr Dutton intervened in the case of a French au pair at the request of AFL boss Gillon MacLachlan on behalf of his cousin, it has been revealed. A Senate committee into Mr Dutton this week also heard his chief of staff had asked for help to get an Italian au pair out of immigration detention on behalf of a former Queensland police colleague.

The company asked for special consideration, given what Ms Mullan and the firm's staff had been through, but it was to no avail.

“To get a response saying the minister didn’t have the power to intervene in our case and then to see the news and seeing he has intervened in the case of a nanny," said Ms Firth, co-CEO of Think Talent.

"I really wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Is this a joke? How can you not have the power to intervene in this situation?”

The directors were planning to lodge paperwork for Ms Mullan as a recruitment consultant on December 30, but those plans were derailed when, on the way to Christmas drinks, a driver allegedly ploughed through the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth streets.

Eighteen people - including a four-year-old boy - were hit and injured. Antonia Corcaris, 83, later died of his injuries.

Seven of Think Talent's nine employees were impacted.

“I had a hematoma to the head, so I’ve had pretty bad vertigo ever since and a broken rib,” Ms Firth said.

“It was so hard being injured, knowing Cara was injured and not being able to do anything. That was the worst part. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t move my head at that point.”

Ms Mullan had started with the company about two weeks before the incident, and is brought to tears when describing it.

She was in The Alfred hospital for five days, with head and hip injuries, and in a wheelchair until March.

“I’m not one to dwell, the way I’m coping with it is just to count myself lucky, I’m very happy to be alive,” Ms Mullan said.

Ms Johnstone said that for eight weeks of the new year, 80 per cent of their employees were experiencing post-traumatic stress, including the directors.

“It was a very, very complex situation. Worrying about injuries and healing and then getting the phone call from the immigration agent on the 17th of January, ‘guess what, this has changed’, it was like kicking a dog when it was down,” she said.

“The paperwork was ready, all we needed was the final piece from Cara but she was in hospital and that’s why we missed the cut off,” Ms Firth said.

Think Talent's immigration lawyer Jamie Lingham said the caveat applied to the recruitment consultant job had been increased from $65,000 plus super to more than $90,000 for a two year sponsorship.

“The impact on our small business to increase someone’s base salary by almost 40 per cent is signifcant,” she said.

They also said it would put considerable pressure on Ms Mullan to perform to a higher level, which could increase anxiety while she was also recovering.

On January 30, they contacted the office of Mr Dutton - who was then the minister for Home Affairs as well as Immigration - to ask if they could apply for Ms Mullan's sponsorship under the pre-January 17 conditions.

The directors said they sent numerous emails, and when they finally received a response from the ministry on on April 26, they were told they would not be granted the consideration.

They were told they could apply for a six-month extension to her working holiday visa, which they did, or apply for the skilled nominated visa or the skilled regional visa, which Ms Johnstone said would not be applicable for Ms Mullan.

She has since been granted the extension but now faces the prospect of having to leave in November. "My focus at the moment is on recovery ... so to think I might have to up and leave at any minute, it's nerve-wracking."

Asked about her case, the Department of Home Affairs said it not comment on individual cases, and that foreigners who wished to remain in Australia for work needed to apply for a relevant visa and meet the legal criteria.

"Departmental decision-makers have no discretion to depart from nomination critieria that must be met under the Migration Regulations, even where there are compelling or compassion circumstances involved," a spokeswoman said.

Ministerial intervention was generally only available where an immigration application had been refused by the department and affirmed by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, she said.

Nicole Precel is a video journalist and reporter at The Age. She is also a documentary maker.