Sue Mackay, Labor Senator for Tasmania
UPDATE 2009: Senator Sue Mackay's parliamentary contacts have been deleted. She is no longer a Senator in the Federal Government.
Senator MACKAY (Tasmania) (7.20 p.m.) -I rise tonight to speak on an issue that is of huge importance to my home state of Tasmania, an issue that has galvanised members of the community from all walks of life. The matter that I want to bring before the Senate tonight is the plight of a young Tasmanian woman, Ruth Cruz. It is not strictly true to call Ruth a Tasmanian because, to date, she has not been officially granted that status. Officially she has not been, but certainly unofficially, by the people of Tasmania, she has.
Ruth was born in El Salvador. Her father left the family when Ruth was three and her mother died of cancer when Ruth was four. Following the death of her mother, Ruth was brought up by her grandmother and her older sister, until her older sister married and came to live in Tasmania with her husband, a political refugee. At the age of 14 Ruth was kidnapped by one of the many gangs that operate in El Salvador. Gang violence is unfortunately common in El Salvador and is used to coerce victims into being drug runners. Ruth witnessed the murder of a friend before managing to escape and go into hiding. Ruth arrived in Tasmania on a visitors visa in late 2000 to be with her sister, Daysi Escobar. When she arrived in Tasmania she was physically and emotionally exhausted. She was socially withdrawn and fearful. According to her sister Daysi:
... she was malnourished, but so used to hunger that she hardly ate. A check up with the family doctor revealed that she was physically weak, anaemic and suffering from a stress-related asthma. An x-ray revealed that she had cracked ribs.
From her position of safety in Tasmania, Ruth then applied for a protection visa on the grounds that she was at risk of gang violence was she to return to El Salvador. This application was refused, as was a subsequent appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal. Ruth has been able to stay in Tasmania by virtue of a series of bridging visas whilst awaiting the outcome of her various applications to stay on a more permanent basis.
Having failed to secure permanent residency, Ruth had one avenue left open to her: she had to rely on a man who, in his own words, was 'the most interventionist immigration minister ever'-Mr Philip Ruddock. Unfortunately for Ruth, she is not a friend of the former immigration minister, nor does she have sufficient funds to make a substantial donation to the Liberal Party. She had to rely, then, on Minister Ruddock's compassion. What she got, on his last day in the job as immigration minister, was the decision that she would not be granted a visa. He signed the letter to reject her application on his last day in the job-6 October. Yet, extraordinarily, it took 11 days before the Tasmanian director of the immigration department gave the letter to Ruth's lawyer. The letter was handed to the lawyer at 5 p.m. on Friday, 17 October and gave Ruth 28 days to leave Australia.
I think the timing on this was a cynical act to try and reduce the fallout from this callous decision. It is commonly accepted now amongst the medical community, and I believe a protocol of BreastScreen Tasmania-a relevant agency to cite, given yesterday was Pink Ribbon Day-that, wherever possible, bad news not be given to patients on a Friday. This is in recognition of the powerlessness of the position in which it places the person getting the news, with little access to support or the ability to take action on the news they have been given until the Monday following.
Now whereas those in the caring professions deliberately avoid trying to place people in this powerless, vulnerable position, it seems in the case of the immigration department and the new minister, Minister Vanstone, that this act must have been deliberately taken to induce that very feeling of powerlessness. However, the new minister and her department underestimated the people of Tasmania and the support and compassion they are prepared to extend-even at weekends. The Mercury newspaper carried the story on the front page of its Saturday edition. There was a page 3 story the next day in the Sunday Tasmanian and by Monday a new community group had been formed known as 'Friends of Ruth'. It emerged that one of the reasons for Ruth's applications being rejected was that, as a minor, the issue of who had legal custody of Ruth had been unclear. However, on 15 May 2001, Ruth's father signed a statement saying he wanted her to stay in Tasmania in the care of her sister. Ruth's father Carlos wrote:
I confirm that there is a great deal of violence in this country - this is from El Salvador - and especially the place where I live from gangs who attack young people and force them to join the gangs. My daughter has been threatened and it is likely that her life would be in danger if she returned.
However, despite this statement being referred to at the Refugee Review Tribunal, the department could not find the document and had been unsuccessfully trying to contact Ruth's father to resolve the custody issue. Despite the department's inability to track down Carlos Cruz, a local El Salvadorian journalist, Adriana Valle, working on information provided by the Mercury newspaper, managed to find him. The story confirming Mr Cruz' desire for Ruth to remain in Australia for her safety was published in the Mercury on 24 October. Amazingly, the original documents signed by Mr Cruz were also found that day.
As I said before, the compassion Ruth's story has raised in Tasmania cuts across all religious, political, ethnic, age and other groupings. Friends of Ruth comprises politicians from across the political spectrum, including the Tasmanian Premier, Jim Bacon, Anglican and Catholic Bishops, representatives from Ruth's school, community organisations such as Anglicare Tasmania and Tasmanians for Refugees, and the Lord Mayor of Hobart. This group today launched a petition calling on the new minister to review the decision to deny Ruth Cruz a visa, with Friends of Ruth spokesperson Jo Flanagan saying:
The petition asks that the Minister allow Ruth to stay with her family, those people who provide care for her. As a child, we believe she has the right to remain with those adults who will care for her and protect her.
Last night, the Hobart City Council carried a motion calling on the minister to grant Ruth a permanent visa. As a Labor senator, it is not within my power to resolve this issue. It is not in Senator Brown's power, either, although I do note that he was quoted in our local paper as saying he was going to introduce an urgency bill in relation to this-a bill that we have not seen and, if he did in fact introduce it, I suspect it would be blocked by the government. It is not in the power of the Independent Tasmanian senators either. However, it is within the power of the Liberal senators for Tasmania to use whatever influence they have with their colleague Senator Vanstone and ask her to overturn Mr Ruddock's decision. I understand from speaking to people in Hobart today that there is an expectation that there is some short-term comfort for Ruth in that she may be granted another bridging visa to take her through to the end of January. But what Ruth wants, what her sister wants and what Ruth's father wants is for Ruth to be allowed to stay permanently in Tasmania. That is what the people of Tasmania want as well.
Ruth is not far off completing year 11. She wants to continue to year 12. She is an active member of the community, plays senior soccer and has many friends. I have no real ability to understand how Ruth Cruz must feel. I did not lose my father at three and my mother at four. I have not been subjected to gang violence or kidnap. I am secure in the knowledge that I have a permanent home in the beautiful and safe state of Tasmania. From my position of privilege it is hard to place myself-as it would be for everybody in this chamber-in her shoes. But I can place myself there enough to know that we have a responsibility to vulnerable young people to allow them to develop in a climate free from fear and uncertainty and that we cannot send a vulnerable young woman back to an unstable country where she will have no support-to do so would be unethical and inhumane. We owe it to Ruth and other young people in her position to welcome her to our country and provide her with a safe and secure environment. Minister Vanstone has been accused in the past of lacking compassion. I hope in this case she will prove her accusers wrong and use her discretion to allow this young woman to stay permanently in Tasmania.