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HomeIssue 14Port Augusta's Mayor: When softly-softly diplomacy isn't enough to get a town...

Port Augusta's Mayor: When softly-softly diplomacy isn't enough to get a town out of the morass

Under the no-holds-barred Mayor Joy Baluch, the Port Augusta council drives the local state and federal agencies, not the other way round. They are held to account in monthly meetings. This has gone a long way towards a solution of what was a near-terminal anti-social behavior and alcohol crisis. Could it be the template for the councillors and Mayor taking the reins in Alice Springs on Monday? ERWIN CHLANDA reports.
“Port Augusta is alcohol free. You cannot drink in a public square. If you want to drink you go home, to a pub or a club. You will not drink in the streets and you will not sit on the beach and consume alcohol.
“And you will not create havoc and unsocial behaviour. You piss off back to Alice Springs to the Todd River. That’s where you go because in Port Augusta, City Council rules and regulations must be complied with.”
What about people who contravene that regulation?
“They are dealt with appropriately, are put on a bus and sent somewhere else.”
Who puts them on the bus?
“Our Safety Officer does.”
And that person plays a very major role in the town.
Nancy Joy Baluch – her friends call her Joy – doesn’t mince words. She has served as the Mayor of Port Augusta from 1981 to 1993 and from 1995 till now. That she’s battling cancer wasn’t at all evident in our telephone conversation yesterday.
“In 1981 we had a town square. It would have drunken whites, drunken blacks, fornicating in public, in the presence of tourist buses,” she says.
“It was a deplorable situation.
“Tourist buses left Port Augusta. They just by-passsed Port Augusta. Our tourist trade went down to zero.
“Port Augusta became a place not to be seen in.
“Today we are a tourist destination. We have turned our image around.
“For 90 years the town turned its back on the very quiet waterway that was navigated by Matthew Flinders back in 1804.”
Turning to face it, the town became the second largest SA port (Port Adelaide being the largest), exporting wheat and wool and other produce direct to London.
Once a dirty recess, a haven for vagrants and drinkers, the beach is now the town’s playground: “People who lived here some 30 years ago, are just overwhelmed by the transformation.
“We have altered the face of Port Augusta.
“We have dealt with the people who were creating havoc and who were socially unacceptable.”
How did she manage to do that?
“We developed a series of strategies. It was clear to us that not one single initiative would overcome this mounting problem.
Part of that strategy was to develop an alcohol free environment, which included a sobering-up shelter, a mobile assistance program whereby those affected by drugs and alcohol were picked up by the MAPS van, and taken to the sobering up shelter and tended to in a caring environment.
“They are showered, fed, bedded down and next morning the relevant agencies attend to their needs, i.e. taken to hospital or doctors, given counseling, enticing them to embark upon a program to break the cycle of alcohol dependence.
“Funding and administration for this facility is by the three tiers of government.”
Is it compulsory?
“Course it’s not bloody compulsory. Nothing is compulsory today. When they are admitted to the centre they are normally in a filthy condition. They have peed themselves and are a complete bloody mess.”
The town’s transformation didn’t happen over night.
“Everything was a battle, a hill to climb. There are always the do-gooders from outside the community who say they have civil liberties, and you’re contravening their civil liberties, their rights.
“Well bugger them. They’ve got no rights. They are ruining this community and I don’t give a stuff if you are black, white, brindle with yellow spots. If you do not comply with those rules and regulations, you are not welcome in this community.”
But back to the Safety Officer, an employee of the council which funds the position to the tune of $230,000 a year – a small item in the $28m budget.
“The funding of the Safety Officer, the council believes, is a state government responsibility and should be funded from either the law and order or the health budgets. But local government needs to have control of this watchdog position, to keep the state government honest.
The Safety Officer keeps tabs on what government departments and agencies are – or are not – doing, the roles they are not fulfilling.
Mrs Baluch says the Safety Officer is “a person who has opened a Pandora’s Box” establishing, for example, the number of homeless people, and getting agencies on the weekend to work through those issues.
“It is a state government responsibility to deliver these sorts of services.
“We don’t need more money.”
It’s the council which needs to “keep tabs on where the money is spent”.
(She says there is  a need for a Safety Officer also in Aboriginal communities where “a lot of nepotism comes into play – it should not”.
“In Port Augusta we have 30 spoken dialects.
“Some clans despise each other, and fight each other. Families are appointed to a particular area of activity and families take control which excludes other families within the community from accessing services.
“And until such time that the governments grow balls and address these problems they will continue.”)
As a result of council’s pushing, the town now has a camp, built with state government funding (“it’s not council’s responsibility to fund it”).
Says Mrs Baluch: “The camp was established for people coming into town over the long summer period to access services which in the Pitjantjatjara lands close down over the summer.
“That camp has accommodation that is not overcrowded, is safe, alcohol free. All different types of facilities are there.
“If you want to sleep in a wiltja, next to a campfire, we’ve got it. Motel type accommodation – we’ve go it. Ablution blocks, laundry blocks, a kitchen, two meals a day in the dining room.
“You are charged. It comes out of your welfare payment.
“The facility can be accessed between 6am and midnight.
“And if you’re drunk you don’t get in.
“There is no use coming down to a friend’s place or a relative’s place that has three bedrooms and you’ve got 30 or more people sharing those facilities.”
Mrs Baluch says there is no magic wand to overcome unsocial behaviour.
“It’s been allowed to manifest by the three tiers of government over a long period of time.
“We have overcome these problems by working together with government departments and with the community.
“You’ve got to sit around a table and work through their differences.
“We have come a long way over the last 10 years.”
Mrs Baluch says the key was to bring to the table, in monthly meetings, the state and federally funded services, 15 or more agencies, supplying chairmen in turn, and make them “deliver their services in an appropriate way … working harmoniously.
“They are wasting money. It doesn’t filter down to the people in the marketplace, it’s wasted on trivia, on people who run around in 4WDs, flat out justifying their positions.
“By that I mean that social workers, workers in government departments knock off at 3 o’clock on a Friday, turn their backs on the problems and come back on a Monday morning to see that all hell has broken loose.
“I have still not been able to convince government departments to have their weekends in the middle of the week, in particularly in relation to social workers and others delivering important services.”
She leaves no doubt about her view of  “people in authority who get a bloody pay packet every Friday and don’t give a stuff about our case.”
If she has a soft spot for Alice Springs and the NT generally she hides it carefully.
She is outraged about visits over the years from Alice, Tennant Creek and Katherine elected members, local and NT Government, including former Alice Mayor Fran Kilgariff.
“You could have been on top of these problems if the people with decision making power who wasted my time and energy nine years ago had been doing their job.
“I don’t give a stuff what happens in Alice Springs today because you’ve got nobody with balls and guts to go out on a limb like I did.
“They went back all fired up. It was their intention to go back to government authorities and departments to work together.
“Unfortunately, that never occurred.
“It went back to the bureaucracy. And it shouldn’t.
“I have wasted umpteen hours over the last 30 years talking to people in authority in the Northern Territory who go away with fire in their belly.
“But they don’t listen. They’ve got no guts and no balls.”
What about collaboration with the police?
“You have to get it. They wax and wane. It all depends on the bloody superintendent. They are all dictated to by a central position [in the capital]. That was just as big a battle to get the collaboration of the police.”
How did she get it?
“Be nasty, tell them the truth. And I don’t give a stuff what they say about me. I can sleep at night.”
She says: “I’m about to set up a meeting with the newly appointed superintendent who I believe does not have his fingers on the pulse.”
Mrs Baluch has for decades been a target for national media.
“I suffered physically and if it were not for the Lord Jesus Christ I would have been dead a long time ago.
“I’ve put up with a lot of criticism since 1985, since I tried to introduce dry areas into Port Augusta.
“I’ve been subjected to a lot of personal criticism. Another person would not have stood the pressure.
“I know I was on the right path because I was put on this path by God.
“We now have the young Aboriginal people involved. We cannot allow them to be burned out as we have been.
“We won’t allow that to happen. We now have the three tiers of government sitting together, but the local community has to be in control. It’s all about controlling that great bucket of money.
“Why should we go on for the next 40 years to see it wasted. It’s about honesty and transparency, and someone with balls to initiate it.
“Whether the Mayor has boobs or balls, she or he is still the Mayor. Some people say I have both.
“It is my aim to leave my role having brought harmony to the streets of Port Augusta, making it a role model for the rest of Australia, where the two cultures live and work together harmoniously.”
PHOTOS, from top:  Once a dirty recess, a haven for vagrants and drinkers, the beach and foreshore are now the town’s playground. • Mayor Baluch. • Gladstone Place, once a venue for fighting and fornication, one one of the town’s many beauty sport. Photos courtesy Port Augusta City Council (the Mayor) and The Transcontinental Port Augusta (aerial shot and park).• Alice Springs councillor  candidate John Reid, with supporter Bob Durnan, at the civic centre polling booth last Saturday. It was Mr Reid’s campaign, with its references to the Port Augusta model, that sparked our interest to do this story.


  1. How many times did I raise the Port Augusta model during my election campaign for Councillor-which in the main fell on deaf ears. Why reinvent the wheel when we can extract some of the finer elements / principles of the Port Augusta social vision and action plan, to customise for use within our own context to produce positive outcomes to dealing with some of the complex and diverse social and eonomic issues of this town called Alice Springs.
    I called for the Alice Springs Town Council (ASTC) to adopt a social inclusion policy into its governance system, and core operations, but in fact if people actually analyse the current policies and programs of Council, underpinning most of these processes are the principles of social inclusion. So the question begs, why not give it the legal momentum by constructing a policy of social inclusion which will then guide how the ASTC conducts business within its own framework, but will also guide how it interfaces with other levels of government, service agencies, contractors and the good citizens themselves.
    It is also interesting to note that although I was the only candidate that ran on this platform from the beginning of the election campaign (and most supporters told me I was mad for doing so) in the final days of electioneering many other mayoral and Councillor candidates also embraced this inclusive and potentially transforming paradigm.
    Anyways “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”.
    ED – It was Mr Reid’s campaign that sparked our interest to do this story.

  2. Having seen the improvements with family first hand just last week, I can only say that the improvements are real and sustainable.
    The police have a fair amount of presence and the vibrant nature of the town is obvious.
    Looking forward to many, but not too many anonymous, comments from your readership. Port Augusta is not the Alice for one thing, they do not have to deal with the intervention in a direct sense.
    I have had the “pleasure” of meeting Joy in my taxi times and I will say is that she is better entertainment value than the likes of Dean Lukin. At least DL was far more generous with his fare payment.
    David Chewings

  3. That the voters in Alice Springs have had enough of a softly softly status quo should be evident to anyone following the recent election returns. Three of the top four primary vote winners come from Action for Alice. The Greens have the fourth spot, and theirs is a captive market.
    So where to from here? I suggest it comes down to a chain of command with the Alice Springs Town Council (ASTC) having the chair. ASTC does not go cap in hand to Lhere Artepe, Lhere Artepe comes to ASTC. The same goes with Tangentyere Council, Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, Central Land Council and all the other semi-autonomous bodies that we have legislated into existence over the past three decades.
    They have morphed into monsters with their own agendas, and too often they consider themselves superior to our three tiers of democratically elected governments. Just as in Port Augusta, someone needs to restore some order and common sense, and local government is clearly the right place to make a start.
    So no more nonsense, no more cultural cringe, no more politically correct emasculation. And here is an idea to start things off. Instead of beginning Council meetings with an acknowledgment of the Traditional Owners of Alice Springs, why not begin with an acknowledgment of the actual owners of the building in which we meet and the land on which it stands – all the residents of Alice Springs and their democratically elected representatives, the Alice Springs Town Council.

  4. Maybe we could just make The Alice a suburb of Port Augusta, give the current ineffective council the flick and install a Baluchi-led small management team.
    Her point about government services being available at the weekend was, I thought, quite apt. It does make sense to have the social workers and others on the deck when the shit is happening, although I expect the demand for services exceeds our current capacity to provide and staff would get burnt out.
    A very insightful article.

  5. Having travelled through “PortAguta” over the last 40 plus years it was a place to belt through as fast as possible and be pleased to check the town out in the rear view mirror, as many Territorians have.
    We now make it a regular stopping place and enjoy the atmosphere around the town with good motels, coffee shops and friends who have retired there. It ran second on our list of places to look seriously at when we retired if we left the Territory. (This may yet happen!!)
    What a turn around the town has been.
    It can be done, it should be done here in the Territory but as stated “who has the balls to stand up and do it?” Unfortunately I do not see light at the end of the tunnel.
    Meanwhile we consider our next move.

  6. Firstly … a few short answers to some early posts. NO! You can’t have her!
    Reading the article is just as it is listening to Joy, she has unbelievable support from the WHOLE community. We, as a Council, have strived for years to bring about change … there’s still a bloody long way to go, and it is never ending. My short time on Council (10 years) has seen many changes, but they have come from many years of battles that began prior to my Council existence. I was, however, present during the visits by Alice Springs and subsequently Ceduna Council and would encourage both to continue with the work they are doing. Joy’s comments might sound like we “wasted our time” helping out other local government bodies, but you would be more than welcome to re-visit and re-establish contacts again.
    Cr. Tony Mitchell

  7. @ Port Augusta Councillor Tony Mitchell.
    Posted March 29 2012 at 2:21pm.
    Not everyone may realise that Joy Baluch is nearing her 80th birthday and won the last election with 80% of the vote and there is little sign of her stopping.
    Shades of an Olive Pink perhaps.
    Joy is popular, her time in the sun as Mayor is right now but does she have support from the WHOLE community as Cr. Tony Mitchell would presume?
    Aboriginal theologian Dave Wright, for 10 years a community voice in Port Augusta, might not whole heartedly concur with Tony’s sentiment.
    Joy was not supportive a group wanting a community garden on council land refusing their request thus: “This bunch of Jenny Craig failures who can’t even tend their own gardens … and some people you can’t teach a bloody thing.” Reported in the summer of 2011.
    Joy won the day.
    Communities could benefit more by listening to such diverse voices as John Reid and Joy Baluch.

  8. I was one of the councillors who went to Port Augusta that year. The action we took was to introduce dry areas legislation (which I opposed). At the time we also met with Mayors of surrounding councils who had “inherited” issues as a direct consequence of Pt Augusta’s initiatives. My personal view is that they mainly shifted their problems rather than solved them. There is no silver bullet and we need to work through this together.
    Sitting in my overseas office I hear much of the ugly anger coming out of Alice Springs. This is very damaging for our major industry of tourism. The same things can be said using less inflammatory language – but that doesn’t get the headline does it?
    With the NBN rollout there will be major opportunities for us to renovate the local economy and capitalize on the iconic and romantic destination that is Alice Springs. Let’s think a lot bigger than Port Augusta.

  9. I also wonder which of her initiatives has not been implemented here? Please be specific (as opposed to angry). The only difference I see is the confrontational speaking style.

  10. Perhaps the single biggest change to the continuing alcohol-fueled dynamic swirling around Alice Springs was mentioned in today’s news.
    Apparently one of the new initiatives in the Federal Stronger Futures legislation is support for 20 remote communities in the NT to develop alcohol management plans.
    If so, the potentially positive impact on the urban centres strung along the Stuart Highway will be huge. I don’t know what impact this will have on the 20 remote communities, but if handled well, there is no reason it can’t be equally positive.
    We live with alcohol, so let’s do that.
    I would still like to see a closing of the bottle shops on one day a week simply for the civic relief it would bring. I also wonder if restoring the sale of cask wine might not reduce the broken glass on our roads. Some mornings it can look like a ski field out there.

  11. @ Jane Clark Posted March 30 2012 @ 10:05 and 8:58am.
    Jane, you cannot discuss the problems that have beset Alice Springs since June 2007 without first recognizing the devastating effects of the Federal Intervention policies.
    To attempt to do otherwise in this public forum shows to me a denialist attitude which has plagued the Alice Springs Town Council for decades now.
    Give Joy a little credit for her role in changing Port Augusta for the better.
    With respect,
    David Chewings.

  12. One thought – this article neglects the impact on Port Augusta of increased mining in neighbouring regions – Eyre Peninsula and the Roxby Downs area.
    This is arguably a more significant factor in the upturn in civic fortunes for the town, than a hard-nosed crusader in local government.
    Though I did perversely enjoy the absurdity of the narrow vision promoting a “put them on a bus” policy.
    Where do we draw the line of Community? The town boundary?

  13. It is with much interest that I read this article and the comments associated with it. As a candidate in the Alice Springs Town Council (ASTC) elections my pitch was based on the Council’s role in promoting social cohesion and being a good decision maker for its constituency (something that I still think needs further exploration).
    Underlying this pitch is my belief that things can be better in Alice Springs. For things to be better we need to understand the problem, for it is only in a correct diagnosis (to borrow from the health field) that we can hope to proceed with treatment that fits the “disease”. It is all very well for any one of us to say “the problem is this, and this, therefore is the solution” however I would contend that it is this approach that stifles our ability to understand the problem properly.
    What this approach does is allow anyone to proceed, almost instantly, from diagnosis to purported cure. What then generally happens is we then start arguing about whether my cure or your cure is the right one.
    As this process goes on we invest in our particular cure, and see our success as bound up with whether our cure is the one adopted. What I would rather see, and is something I talked about throughout the campaign, is better engagement.
    Engagement is a much misunderstood term (and it is not my intention to spend time on this here), suffice to say that engagement is principally about the processes through which people work together to understand, define and work on issues of importance to them. For Alice Springs to generate responses that address our problems we need to develop ways to collectively define the problems we face.
    It is only in this process that we will be able to devise cures that address the problems we face. This requires the hard work of finding ways to sit down with all members of the town to understand their perspectives, and then to keep working with them to generate solutions.
    Such an approach might be decried by some as “softly softly diplomacy” but I would contend that it is anything but. Talking with people to understand problems and generate solutions is not an easy out. Rather it rests on the belief that we live together in a community and it is that generating a “we” rather than an “us” and “them” that our safe and happy future lies. Doing this still means that we need to make hard choices about what we do in terms of our response. The difference being that these responses are generated by the community to address the issues as defined by the community.
    I see benefit in learning from what others have done, but I also trust in the creativity and commitment of the people of this town. We need to develop our own home grown solution (bolstered by learning from elsewhere) so that together we are producing the community we want to be part of in the future.
    As a post script I think that many of the things John Reid is saying make sense. The promotion of social inclusion (or cohesion) needs to be a basic principle of how Council makes its decisions.

  14. Voters at the election last weekend voted strongly for the same nothingness of Damien Ryan. It appears Alice Springs residents want to worship afar but not in our town. Change is just too much. Better the devil you know that won’t do anything than someone who will implement change. The final vote is still not in for the mayoral spot so what will be will be. Alice has spoken. So if you’re a victim of crime, assault, rape or have your house ransacked or your vehicle stolen, the 43.8% that voted for Damien Ryan have no empathy for your plight. Nor for a progressive and safe town. So look on Port Augusta for the voting population that had the guts to vote for change.

  15. Interesting article and comments. Interesting, mainly for what it does not say.
    I found Jane Clark’s comment thoughtful and thought-provoking.
    And Jason Quin’s comment re “just put them on a bus”.
    And good to see Janet in good form, generous as always. Often talks about empathy.
    Let’s hope the new council can put aside some of the stridency of the campaign and get on with things as a team.

  16. I think the most important difference in Port Augusta’s approach is that they don’t seem too concerned about where the problem shifts to as long as it isn’t within their area of control. They have provided a centre within the town where they can provide support for affected individuals. So it doesn’t appear to be a completely heartless approach.
    Our town council cannot control what occurs outside of its jurisdiction. That is the responsibility of the other councils and the two higher levels of government.
    We deal with our problems and they deal with theirs. I just can’t see any other way for our council to successfully approach our issues.

  17. Wow what a long list of comment on Joy’s comments on her position as Mayor, and some of the actions she has instigated, which are working in Port Augusta. I sincerely hope “God willing” that Joy has another 10 + years left in her working life for that town. It has been nothing short of a miracle what she has accomplished. I see Jane Clark is sitting in her “over seas office” still procrastinating on the “how to” and the “what about” while Joy has “delivered” a working model for the town, which I suspect has left Jane still wondering what the hell just passed her!
    What everyone in this forum has failed to see (except for Gavin) is that Alice Springs does not need any more conversation / alcohol bans / blame game / fence sitters and green activists. What it needs it already has, an elected Mayor, good bad or indifferent. We need to support him when he stands out on a limb, guide him if we don’t agree in his direction, lead him into action not inaction, encourage him when he hesitates, and lift him when he falters. Alice Springs needs to accomplish this in his next term as Mayor or the ship will go down with all hands on deck.

  18. Pity today’s pollies of all persuasions do not have the balls (or boobs) to do what this great woman did for her community.
    Think how great this country would be if we had leaders like her, rather than the mealy mouthed clowns running or wanting to run us, who are just so full of pollywaffle and no real substance, just expecting to look after themselves and their mates but not the rest of us, all at our expense.


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