• Four years ago Michael Darrigo was caught drink driving, and to make it worse, he didn't have a license. (NITV News)
A new program seeks to stop high rates of incarceration for driving without a licence among Bourke's Indigenous population.
By
Hannah Hollis

10 May 2016 - 4:47 PM  UPDATED 10 May 2016 - 9:53 PM

For many Australians getting your license is a rite of passage and something a lot of us expect to do.

But imagine if you weren't equipped with the tools to do this. But you need to get around. This is the reality for Aboriginal people living in remote areas.

In regional NSW, fines and traffic offences are adding to the increasing incarceration levels.

It’s also where the Maranuka project is demonstrating that justice reinvestment offers a real solution to Australian communities seeking to tackle problems around offending and incarceration, while at the same time creating alternate pathways for young people.

The pilot program is helping people with driving offences in regional New South Wales.

Four years ago, Michael Darrigo was caught drink driving, and to make it worse, he didn't have a license.

“I felt shame you know, a person my age doing something stupid, I could’ve hurt someone, I could’ve hurt myself on the road,” says Michael.

He doesn't make excuses for what he did, but says in a place like Bourke where cars can be the only way to get around,  the thought of applying for a license didn't cross his mind.

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“Since I left school I worked in the bush and never needed a license, so I travelled and done lots of jobs around Australia and inland and I didn’t need a license,” he says.

Despite spending 30 years behind the wheel, Michael was never taught the rules of the road.

At 49 he's older than most going for their learners, but says it's time to take control of his future.

“I'm a grandfather now and can't do any hard work anymore so a license is what I need to apply for other jobs now, and it's my main focus to get my P's and apply to the national parks and wildlife service,” he says.

Driver licensing offences in Bourke make up a large proportion of offending and conviction rates and sometimes it leads to prison.

The Marunka driving project helps prevent people from getting on the wrong side of the law - and helps rehabilitate those who do.

It's one of several initiatives aimed at offering real solutions to communities looking to tackle issues of incarceration.

Founder Alistair Ferguson says it's about taking responsibility.

“It's important that the community is engaged and they do have ownership of it because it’s not all about me or Pete or one individual organisation – it’s about everyone doing their part and contributing equally,” he says.

Each week Michael has driving lessons with his instructor, Maranguka project officer, Peter Mackay.

"Michael failed the first time but he got there the second time," says Peter.

“We've had nine lessons and he's improved every time. First off he was a bit panicky and pulling the brakes, forgetting blinkers, but now he’s right, I reckon he's right for his P’s.

For many Australians living in the city, the struggles of living remotely are hard to understand. 

Peter says in Bourke it's common to hear about DUIs, people stealing cars, driving uninsured cars and driving without a licence and in addition to cases of bad behaviour, there's also severe social disadvantage.

“ID, identification which you need to go to the RTA to get your license. A lot of them (Indigenous people) don't have birth certificates or anything like that so they just don't worry about it,” says Michael.

However, Michael is putting his shame aside, these days he has more important things to look forward to.

“My son is 22, he’s in Sydney and him and his partner have my 7-month old granddaughter; and my daughter she lives in Euchua, she’s 24 and my grandson is three and a half,” he says.

“So having a license I can go visit them whenever I feel like it, to see my sisters in Griffith and Leeton as well. It’s been three or four years since I’ve seen them.”

The initiative is part of the Birrang Enterprises and - while it's still under trial - It could be rolled out nationally if it's successful says Peter Mackay.

“We've got 48 clients that are registered, five people pass for their L’s and five people booked in for their P's next month,” he says.

Alistair Ferguson founder of Marunka driving project says simple initiatives like this are circuit breakers for those coming into contact with the justice system.

“We've set out to engage a more workable framework that allows community to engage and come out the other side with their license and the world is their oyster scenario,” he says.

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While it's early days, Alistair says they've already seen a decrease in crime rates for the area.

“Our process is quite unique because it's driven from the grassroots up,” he says.

“It's enabled us to sit down and determine what’s not working, what could be improved.”

For now Michael continues to practice with Peter, and when the day comes that he gets his P's, there'll be just one thing left to do.

“Go for the longest drive to Dubbo, just me and my dog,” he laughs.

“I'll be able to drive down and see my grandson and my granddaughter, whenever I feel like it and I don’t have to worry about getting pulled up by police and maybe going to jail, so that’s gotta be good, and can visit family whenever I want to go away every weekend if I want to. I’m legal. Got a license.”