SYDNEY • It was a simple gesture captured in a photograph: Mr Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of Australia, leaning over and placing money in the paper cup of a homeless man in Melbourne this week.
In one of Mr Turnbull's hands, a wad of bank notes; in the other, the single note he was depositing in the cup, an Australian five-dollar bill. The political overtones were also hard to miss: Mr Turnbull, who led his conservative coalition to an election victory just last month, was on his way to deliver a major speech at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.
By the end of the week, those few dollars had bought Mr Turnbull a barrage of attention and had spurred a debate about how best to help homeless people - a problem that has bedevilled other major cities around the world.
Some critics called the Prime Minister a cheapskate, while others complained that his actions flew in the face of official efforts to address the problem of people living on the streets of Melbourne, a city of about 4.5 million people.
"Turnbull - a man with a A$133 million (S$137 million) net worth, a man who carries a stash of bank notes in a money clip, a man who donated a cool A$1 million to his own election campaign - could only spare a fiver to shove in another, poorer man's coffee cup," Erin Stewart wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. "The reality is that Turnbull's government may cause homelessness."
Mr Robert Doyle, the Mayor of Melbourne, has maintained that giving money to beggars entrenches homelessness, and he has urged people to donate to charitable organisations that help the homeless instead.
"Please stop coming into the city and dropping off tents, and bedding and clothing and blankets," Mr Doyle said in an interview last week with radio station 3AW. "It's misguided."
Officials and advocates for the homeless in the United States also discourage people from giving money to homeless people on the streets, saying that donations to service providers like the Salvation Army do more good. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio makes the same argument.
Some of the reaction to Mr Turnbull's gesture was supportive, but he also faced questions and criticism from social media users and the news media.
"I noticed you put $5 in a street beggar's cup in Melbourne the day before yesterday," Mr Neil Mitchell, a 3AW morning host, said to Mr Turnbull on Friday in the middle of an interview that touched on the country's Budget. "We are told not to do that. Do you think it's a good idea to give money to beggars?"
Mr Turnbull replied: "I know people have got different views on that. But you know, every time I see someone in that situation, I always think, 'There but for the grace of God go I'. It was a human reaction, and I am sorry if that has disappointed some people."
Mr Turnbull continued. "Maybe they think you should not give money to people who are sitting on the street, but I felt sorry for the guy."
NEW YORK TIMES