Faculty of Law

UTAS Represent at Australasian Wom*n’s Debating Championship

I’m sure you’ll agree there’s nothing like a good argument. But there are those who love to argue, and those who want to make a career out of arguing – a group of UTAS students discovered this at the Australasian Wom*n’s Debating Championship. The two teams comprising sister duo Johanna and Kathryn Ellis, Zoe Douglas-Kinghorn and Cassady Swinburne, headed to Canberra over the 22nd – 26th of September for the AWDC tournament at the Australian National University.

The regional championship aims to foster non cis-male debaters, by providing a platform to develop their skills and networks in an inclusive environment. The newly re-established Society for Tasmanian University Debating (STUDS) has held numerous social debates throughout this year, but this is the first time the society has engaged in competitive debating. The society attracts a broad range of debaters across the faculties; three of the AWDC team study arts and law and one studies science and maths.

Debating is a great way to build your analytical skills, ability to think on your feet and make your voice heard. During the tournament, the participants gained substantial knowledge and experience in argument, competing in six debates over a two-day period. In the preliminary round, they addressed topics such as mandatory public screening for hereditary diseases, the state imposing licenses on religious organisations, and whether the feminist movement should fight the social message that having babies brings joy. This variety of topics challenged the debaters to present some controversial, thought-provoking and at times downright hilarious responses!

It was a stimulating and immersive experience for all participants, half of whom had never attended a tournament before. The style was British Parliamentary debating, which differs slightly from your traditional 3 v 3 high school structure. The British Parliamentary format emulates a government and opposition bench, who argue in support of or against a proposal. Two speakers form a team, who debate on either the opening or closing half of the bench. In all, eight speeches are made across the houses, at a length of 7 minutes each.

The opening government begins with a speech by the Prime Minister. The second speaker is the opening opposition, who brings rebuttal and an alternate model to the opening government’s proposition. Then the opening government’s deputy offers subsequent rebuttal and substantive arguments, and the second opposition member does the same. The closing government raises an extension to the opening government, building argument on the same side but for their own team. The two teams on each bench are united in their position, but compete for the best analysis or alternative to the debate. Finally, after the closing opposition make their case, the government and opposition whips close the debate, reviewing the contentious issues and ‘whipping up their team’s argument into fluffy meringue’ as one adjudicator advised.

Adjudication is an important aspect of debating. Providing feedback, deciding on the winning team and judging the substantial and formal elements of arguments, can be an arduous task. The adjudicator’s role is more difficult when there are well-known debaters, previous opponents, or team mates at the bench which they must impartially adjudicate. But overall the dramas of the judging process were minimal, and a good time was had by many of the participants.

A great learning experience included socialising with debaters from national and international contingents, including the University of Otago, the Independent University of Bangladesh and several Sydney institutes. The debaters attended a Champion’s Dinner where celebratory screaming probably reached the maximum decibel level for a residential area.

We also enjoyed a presentation by Professor Gillian Triggs, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission and a distinguished barrister. She delivered both a congratulatory and cautionary speech on the role of debating in a ‘post-truth’ era. When our media-saturated worlds are cluttered with fake news, political rhetoric and emotive falsehoods, she urged us to seek out the truth and respond to ignorant claims with well-researched, reasoned arguments. ‘Don’t provide oxygen for, or fuel the flames,’ she said. This advice was affirmed by the esteemed journalist Virginia Trioli, who spoke to us about the many battles she fought during her career, as an advocate for gender rights. She said it was vital that, whatever intellectually lazy slurs arise, feminists should always respond strategically and logically. She has been met with ongoing criticism and dislike for her progressive views, but pushed through the glass ceiling with humour and determination. Trioli established an organisation several years ago called 5050 by 2030, with the aim of representing men and women equally in leadership. She encouraged us not to be complacent: ‘It’s important not to assume that positive change will occur on its own.’

In both their speeches, Trioli and Triggs cited Australia’s current international ranking for women in higher positions of governance, which has plummeted in the past year to number 46th in the world. Paradoxically, Australia has the highest educational ranking for women.

‘Why is there this contrast?’ asked one of the tournament’s finalists, to which Triggs replied grimly, ‘Unfortunately we live in a largely misogynistic society.’

It’s true that women across the world face a lot of boundaries and oppressive structures, perpetuated by misinformation and silence. With some lively and well-informed debate, we hope to change this.

Published on: 06 Oct 2017 11:42am