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Vote 1 bus 'bludger'


Bus story, by Chris JohnstonThere are many reasons to take the bus. It's cheap, reliable and easier on the environment than individual cars. There is no need to hunt for a carpark. You can lose yourself in a book instead of battling traffic.

More obliquely, public transport offers brief, slightly awkward interaction between people who might otherwise never meet or talk to each other. There is a fragile sense of community in the routine elements of bus travel — the tight smile that accompanies an impatient glance at one's watch; the sideways shuffle to allow another person to sit on the bench and wait; the occasional remark about the weather.

For the most part, though, we are silent, hoping that either the seat next to us remains empty or that its eventual occupant doesn't want to chat.

Buses are microcosms of society. Passengers scraping together coins to pay the fare share limited elbow room with smartly dressed businesspeople. Recent migrants and fourth-generation Australians, young and old, parents and singles board, sigh at the graffiti, wish the buses were warmer, and eventually get off at their destinations.

Last week, quite unexpectedly, a group of us participated in an event that seemed to blend social experiment with participatory democracy.

It was a bright, cruelly cold Perth morning and the bus was slowly filling up with people on their way to work. The collective mood was not cheery. Around halfway to the city, the bus stopped to pick up a passenger. And stayed stopped. After an animated discussion with the young man who had boarded, the bus driver opened his compartment door and stood in the aisle, brandishing the man's wallet before him.

The bus driver was indignant. 'Look at this', he said. 'This guy here has tried to give me a ticket that's two days old and he hasn't got any money or cards in his wallet.'

This is not the way bus trips are supposed to go. We looked up hesitantly from books and magazines, cautiously removed earbuds. The subject of this unwanted attention was young and blond, wearing the universal uniform of young manhood: jeans and a hoodie. He could have been desperately poor or just short of cash. He was also — as convention dictates in awkward situations — looking at the ground.

One could sense a wave of empathy for our new companion, mingled with impatience at the delay in our journey.

The driver asked us, 'Well, what do you reckon? Should I let him on or not? Yes or no?' This, again, was unexpected — Australians aren't generally good with audience participation. There was a muted response from the jural public. 'Come on', said the bus driver, exasperated. 'What is it: yes or no?' The response this time was decidedly in the affirmative. 'Let him on', called one man, accompanying a chorus of yeses.

The bus driver exhaled loudly and handed the man back his wallet. 'You're lucky', he informed him. 'If I had had the casting vote, I wouldn't have let you on.'

The reprieved passenger quietly took his seat, the driver admonishing his retreating back for failing to thank anyone. The remainder of the journey took place in the customary silence. No one said 'bludger', 'freeloader' or 'slacker'. We returned to our reading and iPods. Those without either continued looking through the windows.

The outcome of this informal plebiscite might well have been different had the young man been Indigenous, had he had a disability or had he been unable to speak English. Who can say what influenced the collective decision? Still, there was something reassuring in the fact that a group of randomly selected commuters immersed in their own lives and concerns paused to give a stranger a break.

The world, we are told, is becoming a grimmer place. Stories of man's inhumanity to man are so commonplace as to be almost overwhelming. The level of disconnect between individuals and groups within our society grows; disengagement with political and civic life deepens.

The individualism of modern life is echoed in the relentless focus of the current election campaign on personal benefit: what will this or that candidate do for me? 'This election', says Tony Abbott, 'is about you.' Indeed.

Yet there is beauty in the banal moments of everyday life. The backdrop of the global political scene and the grind of work, bills and worries make us grateful for those unexpected moments that see us cast a quiet vote for simple human solidarity.

Sarah BurnsideSarah Burnside is a Perth-based lawyer and freelance writer.

Topic tags: sarah burnside, bus, democracy, plebiscite, vote, freeloader, bludger, slacker



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Existing comments

Sarah, this is the best story I have heard in weeks. Thank you. I will remember it for a long time. For me it evokes memories of what it is to be not merely human, but humane. As a Christian, it reminds me again of God's immeasurable grace, which allows me to enter freely into the divine presence without a ticket; with nothing to pay my way; empty handed. Like your young man, simply because I want to be there.

Pirrial Clift | 09 August 2010  

Thank you for this reminder of empathy in a tough and perhaps overly-toughened social discourse. While we have our weaknesses as a society, and our communities can and do at times revel in self-absorption (we are also a generous mob), it is always reassuring when a few voices are heard over the "heartless bastards' chorus". What price do we put to that old biblical chestnut: treat others the way you would want to be treated?

Barry Gittins | 09 August 2010  

Sarah, I like Pirrial think it is the best story I have heard for a long time. It made me feel good about myself and my fellow travellers in life. For me it had the same effect as beautifully constructed homily.

Bruce Swain | 09 August 2010  

Come on people! Where would you find the brave person who would have led a NO chorus if the person was indigenous?

Frank | 09 August 2010  

How wonderful. They exercised their freedom of choice and kindness won. As it often does, when not imposed, but merely fairly suggested. Humans usually rise to the occasion when allowed freedom.

Free-thinking people resent being told what to do, or having the worst assumptions made about their motives. I wonder what the reaction would have been (on the part of passengers, and also from a self-respect persepctive of the young man) if the driver had said to the other passengers: "He clearly has no money and this probably is as a result (somehow) of your self-interest and success. I exonerate him from responsibility. I don't care if you worked hard for your upkeep. I don't know why he has no money. I order you all to open your wallets and pay for his fare."

Sophie | 09 August 2010  

Interesting, isn't it. When we can identify with the 'other', we can find compassion. Perhaps it was his 'uniform', which he may well have shared with their own sons.

But if he had been different, as Sarah asks? Indigenous, or Muslim, or Orthodox Jewish? Or, in a different situation, he had arrived by leaky boat rather than by a scheduled airline flight?

I can quite easily imagine Tony, had he been on the bus, agreeing with the other passengers. But in a different situation, I'm not so sure.

Warwick | 09 August 2010  

18 months ago I lived in Perth. I found Perth Buses and passengers refreshing

1) The bus stopped in the middle of no where, the driver got out, run forward picking up a hat fom the road, continued forward to the buss ahead and passed it through the door to a lady that had lost it.

2) Running late and towards my bus stop I saw my bus arrive, pick up passengers and pull out. I thought, oh well, that's that. As the bus drew level it stopped and the doors opened for me.

3) I am male and at the time 65, a number of times younger passengers have stood up and offered me their seat. This also happened on the train. I must say that the first time it happened I was taken aback. I found being offered a seat by a younger person to be the norm not the exception.
What do I think of Perth and Perth buses? Marvelous.

Fredvfrom Townsville | 09 August 2010  

Yes, I have had one go on this subject but missed a comment on my first submission.

Early on I was surprised to see a passenger get on who was obviously downs syndrome.

After a week I realised that passengers with downs syndrome regularly travelled unaccompanied to and from work by bus. They didn't trouble anyone and were accepted as just another passenger. OK some had a habit of talking to themselves or no one in particular. One used to sit up front and in a low clear voice give a running commentary on the next bus stop, what connections could be made and what was there in the way of sports/business.

As I said, Perth is a marvelous place.

Fred from Townsville | 09 August 2010  

Experiment? - Why didn't someone on the bus simply pay the youngman's fare?

Brian Davies | 10 August 2010  

Why didn't someone offer to pay the man's fare, as a random act of kindness? In return, the beneficiary of the act of kindness could have been asked, in repayment of the kindness he received, to offer a random act of kindness to a stranger.

Michael | 13 August 2010  

I have two loaves of bread.
I need one to feed my family.
My neighbour has no loaf of bread.
He and his family is starving.
If I do not give him a loaf of bread,
Does he have the right to take one of my loaves?
Why did not one or all of us pay his Fare?

Tony Bell | 15 August 2010  

Thanks Sarah. I use public transport in Brisbane and can relate to this incident. We are now being forced onto electronic cards which by default seem to deter any conversation with the driver who simply pulls up and watches to make sure the reader isn't faulty.

It's refreshing when someone gets on and needs assistance to work out the fare in cash. Helps me slow down and liberate myself from the "time saved" jargon of electronic ticketing.

One of the really nice features of buses in Brisbane is the almost universal "Thank You" to the driver as people disembark. It's a bit harder to get to the train driver when you "detrain" which is the preferred jargon of Queensland Rail.

Tony Robertson | 19 August 2010  

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