A placard on the green lawns of Sydney’s Domain reads: ‘Mr Bashful, Spiritual Advisor to the Dalai Lama – Take a chair and become one of Mr Bashful’s adoring grasshoppers.

However, a few metres behind the placard in front of the NSW Art Gallery, Mr Bashful’s grasshoppers are anything but adoring. Two hecklers are hurling obscenities towards Mr Bashful for continuing to bring up Christian Porter after insisting today’s talk would not be about him.

A shaggy looking elderly gent, with a surgery ID tag on his wrist joins the crowd. He insults Mr Bashful’s intelligence before changing tack completely.

“I got cancer … I’ve beaten it.”

Mr Bashful, taken aback for a moment, responds sharply.

“Well good for you, I hope someone else beats you as well.”

Welcome to the chaotic world of Sydney’s soapbox speakers’ corner.

Soapbox speaking is an almost 150-year-old tradition which began in London’s Hyde Park. The idea is very simple – speakers stand on raised platforms or “soapboxes” in a public place (normally a park) and express their opinions on the social and political issues of the day. Passersby are most welcome to watch and respond.

Mr Bashful's placard

Mr Bashful’s placard invites “grasshoppers” to ask him anything. (Photo: Charlie McLean)

The speakers’ corner in the Domain began in 1878. At its height, it was the major forum for the working class to vent their frustrations towards the city’s problems. It was not uncommon for crowds of around 1000 people to show up, moving from speaker to speaker for hours to discuss the big issues of the day.

Today the speakers’ corner is a much smaller affair, being kept alive by a handful of devotees. Mark the Grinner (one of these speakers) proposes the following as a headline for this story: ‘The Australian dinosaurs that won’t die.’

Mark Avery – alias Mr Bashful – is under no illusions as to how the technological revolution of the 1990s has impacted speakers’ corner.

“That’s made us extinct, in the old days … there were lots of places where [people] couldn’t express their opinions,” he says. “Nowadays, you can express anything.”

For Avery, the speakers’ corner has been a crucial part of a journey he has trod since losing his sister to suicide. Shortly after her death, Mark started to write about happiness, soon realising that he was accumulating so much material he should turn his writings into a book.

“I figured if I ever got the book published, I would like to be interviewed on Radio National – in which case I would like to have good public speaking skills,” he says.

Avery enrolled in Toastmasters, leading him to the Domain where he has developed into a captivating orator. The soapbox speakers’ website (created by Avery) lists Mr Bashful’s many speaking topics, such as the view that James Hardie should not compensate asbestos victims and that we should burn the Mona Lisa.

While Avery is reluctant to get drawn into the cultural significance of the speaker’s corner, he believes the sharing of these “controversial, but persuasive” opinions offer his audience something they will not get elsewhere.

“The idea of speakers’ corner to me is to present ideas about current affairs that you won’t hear in normal media,” he says. “So that’s the role of soapbox speakers – to present a different argument.”

Yet Avery maintains that the speakers’ corner is, although valuable for developing people’s speaking skills, largely obsolete in 2021.

archival image of speaker addressing large crowd in the 1970s

The speakers’ corner was once a major social event in Sydney. Pictured here is John Webster addressing a sizeable crowd in 1973. (Photo: Supplied/John Carnemolla)

It is an argument that is hard to refute. As of January 2021, Australia had 20.5 million social media users equating almost exactly to four in five Australians being active on social media.

For young people especially, social media has become a platform to actively engage in political debate and discussion. A study into social media use among young people in Australia found that over a third of young people engage with political and social posts on Facebook.

Social media has facilitated the birth of a new generation of people who are more engaged with the social and political issues of the day than ever before. So where does this leave face-to-face communication such as soapbox speaking?

It is a question best directed at a long-time speaker at the Domain and in Avery’s words “the world authority on speaker’s corners”, Steve Maxwell.

Maxwell has written a book on soapbox oratory and has been speaking at the Domain for over 30 years. His fascination with soapbox speaking began on a family holiday in Sydney when he witnessed a vociferous debate taking place in the Domain between a large crowd and a soapbox speaker claiming to be Jesus Christ.

He now spends his weekdays working at the Humanist Society of NSW. Hung behind his desk is a large, framed portrait of Albert Einstein whom Maxwell resembles with his long wispy white hair and bushy eyebrows.

And he doesn’t believe that soapbox speaking and online discussion should be compared.

Steve Maxwell has been speaking at the Domain for over 30 years. (Photograph: Charlie McLean)

Steve Maxwell has been speaking at the Domain for over 30 years. (Photo: Charlie McLean)

“When you capture something on the screen and even on video – what you’ve got is that moment,” he says. “You haven’t got the feeling around the place. It’s like getting a magnifying glass and looking at Shakespeare – you can’t look at the whole.”

This inability to see the “whole” picture of someone’s point of view resonates deeply with today’s divided social and political culture. Studies of voter trends show Australians are more deeply divided politically than ever before. In the past five years increased scrutiny has been placed on social media algorithms in widening these social and political divides.

Miguel Garcia is a librarian at the Daniel Solander Library in the Royal Botanic Gardens. He has observed the speakers’ corner for decades and views it as almost the first draft of social media.

“People would move from one place to another and have their own little discussions,” he says. “In a sense it was … the social media of its day and it was done in real time.”

Garcia believes the speakers’ corner still serves a purpose today and has a capacity for exposing people to ideas that surpass that of social media.

“It’s when you actually have people standing up in a public forum, face-to-face that all the passion is communicated at a level that exceeds that of a newspaper and even I will say this – even that of social media,” he adds. “And it has a greater potential to impact on the individual.”

There is certainly plenty of passion today as Mr Bashful admonishes his persistent hecklers. However, as the bickering carries on it is questionable as to what the audience is getting from this debate.

Later in the afternoon, a conversation starts between Mark the Grinner and a woman named Patricia. They discuss the Australian media landscape, the flaws of the two-party system as well as the dire economic prospects of Gen Z. The conversation lasts for almost 40 minutes. A conversation between two people that would never have met without the speakers’ corner.

The soapbox speakers’ corner may not be a significant force in today’s public debate but perhaps its more important function is simply to bring people together. To have people that care about ideas look each other in the eye and express their opinions.

Despite the many merits of digital communication, it is still confined by Maxwell’s magnifying glass metaphor. Digital communication does not capture the totality of face-to-face discussion. The variations in tone, the words we almost use and the non-verbal cues which are vital to arriving at an understanding between two people.

“We have all these ideas in our heads from staring at our phones all day, yet no one speaks to each other,” says Mark the Grinner during his conversation with Patricia.

If nothing else, the speakers’ corner gets people talking and that is reason enough to hope that the dinosaurs of the Domain avoid extinction.

Main image: Mr Bashful addresses his “grasshoppers”. (Photograph: Charlie McLean)