Hand-picking Melbourne’s homeless

Closet scientologist Robert Doyle wants buskers off our streets

Robert Doyle glares at the contestants. The teenage juggler’s tattered jeans look unworthy of an op-shop, but such a predicament elicits no sympathy from the Lord Mayor. Unprepared to give the performer a second thought, he finds pleasure in scribbling a zero on his judging card. Moments later he delivers a brutal announcement:

“You are unfit to perform on our streets! Next!”

While this scenario has yet to eventuate, we should not be surprised to see Doyle fulfilling such a duty in the not-so-distant future. His savage intention to end the “continual ear assault” is not doing Melbournians any favours. Rather, it is an assault on our most vulnerable, desperate and entertaining citizens.

The lower classes of this otherwise affluent city deserve to be outraged. A new quality control procedure on Melbourne’s buskers has been proposed, whereby all street performers are now required to endure a gruelling audition process. Only once they have been deemed worthy by a select few can these prospective Melbourne icons gain permission to amuse the city’s inhabitants, and tourists alike.

Busking is not what you would call a career choice. As much as children absorb mime artists, magicians and chalk Da Vincis with unreserved curiosity, you don’t see them tug at their parent’s shirts and exclaim “I want to be one of those”. On the contrary, busking is an outlet for those among us who can’t pay the bills. It brings out the hidden talents of our neglected citizens, while entertaining the masses for the smallest of prices.

Of course not all buskers are destitute. The pricey Fenders that hang off some of Flinders Street’s most recognisable residents may cause you to question the validity of the busking trade. But look into the eyes of the majority of Melbourne’s street performers and you’ll notice their genuine desperation. Their juggling act or Oasis rendition may be a prepared routine, but that doesn’t make their puppy-dog facial expression a manipulative façade. They need the money. They need the support. And they’re doing the best job they can to make ends meet.

So if Melbourne’s less talented – as judged by Doyle’s gang of critical ‘experts’ – aren’t permitted to express themselves through art, where does that leave them? Doesn’t Doyle understand that a decrease in busking will inevitably lead to a boom in begging? The economics of society teach us there will always be poverty. So would we rather live in a borough of scrounging hobos, or a vibrant cultural metropolis that celebrates talent and effort? From my experiences, voluntarily rewarding a gifted performer is far easier – and comfortable – than succumbing to incessant requests for silver.

A stroll around the perimeter of the State Library reveals our unhealthy population of homeless inhabitants. No level of government seems to have the adequate solution to this problem, with statistics from the Victoria Council of Social Services divulging that only a third of these ‘residents’ are offered housing. Meanwhile, three international surveys rank Melbourne as one of the world’s top ten liveable cities. Yet I struggle to imagine the term ‘liveable’ being used by many of our park-bench dwellers. If Doyle wants to address a genuine problem, he should use his political experience to negotiate funding for the city’s various homeless services.

Doyle may loathe the sound of imperfection, but he needs to recognise that buskers have no intention of being a nuisance. Their instruments are not weapons, their voices are not political propaganda, and their offering hats are not meant to trip over pedestrians. They are the honest, persistent underdogs our country loves to admire. Unafraid to put their pride on the line, these performers do whatever it takes to impress the collective of hard-to-please commuters. For hours they watch as hard-hearted businessmen take pleasure in their art, only to deny them even the smallest semblance of appreciation. Sometimes they are the subject of needless abuse and shameful embarrassment. If they didn’t need to do it, they wouldn’t bother.

Admittedly not every busker has – or will ever have – the X Factor, but the beauty of music is in the ear of the beholder. Rock legend Sting recently highlighted the industry’s subjectivity when he tried his luck on the streets. The London public offered the disguised former singer of The Police a measly 40 pounds. You’d need to spend double that to see him in concert.

Cynics may believe that buskers strum their strings merely to pull at the heart strings of sensitive visitors. But the eclectic assortment of entertainment provided by these individuals is a public service, adding colour to Melbourne’s multicultural hub. They are not only the soundtrack to our footy games, the stars of our Australia Days, or the time-consumers of our aimless city adventures, but they are Melbourne. Without them this city would have no life. We’d just be Mel.

As head honcho, Doyle should quit worrying about the ‘noise pollution’ that few of us seem to notice. His responsibility should be to protect Melbourne’s disadvantaged wanderers from a life of hardship. He should encourage the vulnerable souls who – regardless of their talent – at least give it their best shot. After all, come local election time, these are the people Doyle will be auditioning for. Perhaps they’ll embrace the opportunity to perform their own version of quality control.