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18 Jan 2023

Shout out to the characters of Speakers’ Corner in the Domain

Should we burn the Mona Lisa? Why do the world’s leaders use private jets to attend climate change conferences? And will we ever develop a robot that truly loves us? These are a just few of the topics heard at Speakers’ Corner in the Domain, a Sunday afternoon Sydney institution still thriving after 140 years.

Rich tradition of having a public say

Speakers’ Corner in the Domain began in 1878, and since then has become a place where people could spend a Sunday listening to the philosophies of the day: Darwinism, socialism, and anarchism with all possible points of view represented and argued, often with dramatic and entertaining flair. 

In its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, Speakers’ Corner was a drawcard for dynamic speakers, such as John Webster, who attracted thousands of people with his passionate preaching. Today the crowds are smaller – between 20 and 40 – but the passion of its speakers remains.    

One of the Domain’s most famous speakers was Webster who preached beneath the Moreton Bay Fig trees of The Domain from the early 1950s till the late 1980s. During the 1970s he would attract thousands of people.

In 1966, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “It could be argued that the greatest demagogue in Australia today is a 53-year-old Cockney named Muhammed (sic) John Webster. There is no one in the Australian Parliaments to match him, and in Sydney's Domain he has no real competition."

Another iconic speaker was Irish-born Anne Duffy-Lindsay, who during the 1960s, voiced her concerns about unionism and communism and raised awareness about the challenges of First Nations People.  Read more of Speakers’ Corner history here.

Angela Radonekovic speaking in the 1980s
Bill White having his say in the 1960s with hatted Charlie King looking on
Speakers’ Corner in the 1930s

Expressing yourself without fear or favour

Steve Maxwell has been coming to the Domain event for 40 years and has written a book about the world’s Speakers’ Corners and their representatives.  In various personas, Steve talks about religion, Australian history, and politics. Check out Steve in action here.  

“We just don’t preach to people about the big issues. It becomes a dialogue between the speaker and people in the crowd. These people make their own points and ask more questions and there is a great sense of community,” Steve said.   

“In a modern city, there must be a place where strangers can meet and discuss the issues of the day without fear of persecution; where the right to retain one’s individuality is allowed.”
Steve Maxwell
Steve Maxwell has been coming to Speakers Corner for 40 years

Social media commentary in 3D

Regular speaker Mark Avery (pictured in main image) said in the age of social media, Speakers’ Corner allows real-life action and debate, and all are welcome to join the fun. He said public speaking in the Domain was social media in 3D.

“We are hoping in 2023 that the crowds will come back after falling away during COVID-19 and we welcome anyone who wants to get up and have their say,” Mark said.   

A self-confessed “Epiphany Specialist” and self-confessed spiritual advisor to the Dalai Lama (though he admits this is yet to be verified), Mark calls his listeners his “grasshoppers” and his foes “garden gnomes”.  

“The ones standing on ladders are ‘the speakers’, and they believe it’s their job to educate their ‘grasshoppers’ or ‘groundlings’,” Mark said. “The ones sitting in chairs believe it’s their job to point out why the speaker is wrong, and to heckle,” he said.

Another regular is Helmut Cerncic, who claims he once beat Arnold Schwarzenegger in a body building contest, worked as the professional wrestler in Sydney in his younger years and loves to talk about science.

Helmut Cerncic loves to speak about science

How to be a speaker

According to Mark Avery just bring your own box/stepladder/milk crate to stand on and speak. That’s it!

“When your listeners become bored, they will simply walk away. That’s helpful because you discover what works and what doesn’t. So, your public speaking skills improve and your confidence soars,” Mark said.

“You get used to rejection, and you learn to lose those ‘umms’ and ‘ahs’. You learn eye contact. You learn to improvise. You learn most of skills of public speaking, and that skill will benefit you in countless ways in daily life,” he said.

Mark said the most important thing a soapbox speaker needs to do is entertain. Leave out the boring bits. “The listeners don’t want to know dates, street names and the like, they want the guts of the story, the entertaining bits. And be different,” Mark said.

“Don’t tell us what we must do to stop global warming – we’ve heard that stuff elsewhere. Present a point of view that few people would agree with. If you really believe Peppa Pig is the best television program ever made, tell us, and prove it.

“Controversial ideas are good because the listeners will hang around to argue with you. But remember, your job is not just to argue with them, but to get them thinking,” he said.

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