The free driving program has enabled more than 140 Aboriginal people to get a licence and employed NSW's first-ever Aboriginal driving instructor, Bucky Robinson, right here in Lismore. Yet despite the success of the ACE Colleges Aboriginal Driving Program, including a national Crime and Violence Prevention Award, it's had a rocky road in terms of funding. It has often fallen through the cracks between departments.
Once again the coffers are running dry, so ACE invited representatives from the Justice & Attorney General Department to Lismore last week so they could talk to local Aboriginal people and hear first-hand how a simple concept is having far-reaching impacts.
The department's senior Aboriginal project officer Jason Lonesborough and two of his colleagues spent three days talking to people from Lismore, Box Ridge, and the Balund-a correctional facility (near Tabulam) who have participated in the project.
"The feedback we got was incredibly positive - there are some great stories," he said. "One guy from Balund-a had been trying to get a licence for years and through the assistance of ACE he got a Work Development Order, paid off his fines over time to the State Debt Recovery Office, and went through the program and got a licence. He now has his independence and is hoping to go and work in the mines. It gives him real freedom."
Mr Lonesborough has now asked ACE to submit a business case and is hopeful for a positive response from the Department for more funding. He said in the future he could see partnerships between ACE, TAFE and the RTA on issues around literacy and the driver knowledge test, but for now getting the Aboriginal Driving Program funded and being rolled out in other parts of the state was his priority.
"The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody stated if there are issues in the community where traffic offences are high or on the increase, particularly in regards to licences, there should be programs to address that," he said. "There's a high incidence of unlicensed offences and general traffic offences in the Lismore area basically because of isolation. Going out to those communities and seeing how isolated they are, you can see they have to get to their means of survival (town), but they don't have a licence and they get caught. It was good to sit down with the communities and have a yarn about the issues that face them every day, and isolation was the biggest issue, and then boredom.
"With a licence they see they can get out and do things and visit family in other parts of NSW. They all want to comply with the law but they need to get the licence in the first place, and for some of them that's quite challenging."
Mr Lonesborough described what he had seen as "quite impressive".
"One lady at Coraki, she's nearly 60, she's never had a licence, but she's driving around on her Ls as part of the program. Her husband's not too well and he'll need some medical help in the future, and her main priority is to be able to drive her husband to and from medical appointments," he explained. "She's already gone out and bought a little car and she's getting her independence. She loves driving, she thinks it's great."
Driving instructor Geoffrey McClelland is obviously passionate about people getting their licence - even if it is 20 years after they learnt to drive.
Geoffrey has been teaching Aboriginal people to drive in Lismore and at the Balund-a for the last 12 months as part of the program. Run through ACE in Lismore, it's an outreach program so the instructors go to where the students live, helping to break down isolation and reduce road offences by making the licence process accessible.
"Some of them have been driving illegally for such a long time, just knowing they are legal when they drive past the police is sort of unbelievable to them," Geoffrey laughed. "Once they have a licence they can get a job; they can start to live; they have independence, legally. It gives them satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, of achievement. It builds their confidence up... There's so many reasons why it's important."
"The pride they have when they get their licence is amazing - the smiles are incredible. It's a great thing to watch."
A self-confessed wild boy in his younger days, Geoffrey said imparting some road wisdom to those who are learning so they can not only obtain but keep their licence is all part of the job description.
"I try to pass on some decent habits to keep them alive - young blokes can do some silly things and I try to get them to understand what they're doing isn't smart. I teach them about speeding, not cutting corners, slowing down over crests, just little things that can make a big difference to their life if they make a mistake."
There are many different people who told their stories during the visit, such as current student David Rawlison, who moved to the big smoke several years ago and let his licence lapse but now, living back on the North Coast, is more aware than ever how useful a licence is.
"There's sufficient public transport down there and there's no way I'd drive in Sydney traffic anyway!" David laughed. "But when I came back to Goonellabah I realised I needed my licence to access essential services - my doctor is in Ballina for instance. We might have the latest buses (on the North Coast) but we have a timetable that belongs in the 1970s.
"The whole driving program has been a really positive experience for me... The message I'd like to get across is that it's time the government stopped looking at quantity and had a look at quality."
Mr Lonesborough hopes to have a clear idea about funding by April and Jan Levy from ACE is waiting with bated breath as she believes in the power of the program to create real and lasting change in Aboriginal communities.
"This is an important program that makes people feel welcome, where we recognise Aboriginal people learn differently to others and they can't always be expected to take part in the rat race. We're sensitive to that, it's a very culturally appropriate program," Jan said. "We're hoping for at least three years of funding so we can really make an impact. The RTA and the Attorney General's office wants to stop people going to jail, to stop the high rate of incarceration in this region, and with funding we can do that without a doubt. Plus we can put young people through our program and begin to break the cycle of re-offending and unnecessarily sending people to jail for traffic offences. These are not bad buggers. We're not talking about horrible crimes - a lot of the time they're driving just to fulfil family commitments."