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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 14. July 21, 1971

Plunket Medal — —65 and feeling a little strained

Plunket Medal

—65 and feeling a little strained

Next Friday evening, the 23rd of July, at the Concert Chamber of the Town Hall, the Plunket Medal oratory contest will be held for the 65th time.

What is the Plunket Medal? Run by the Debating Society, the contest was established in 1905 at the instigation of the then Governor, Lord Plunket. Since then it has been widely acclaimed and is now recognised as the top contest of its kind in New Zealand. In 1958 even Salient (a very polite journal in those days—Conrad Bollinger) described it as "one of the more venerable of Victoria's institutions" and decried "the remarkable apathy shown by the student body towards it".

Plunket Medal has, however, attracted considerable controversy. In 1933, Victoria's annual student publication Spike regretted that the contest was not for public speaking rather than oratory, describing the orator as "an extremely rare bird". The speeches themselves were criticised for being more often that not simply the recitation of a hotchpotch of fine-sounding phrases culled from every possible source and welded together by the few if any original ideas which the speaker had on the subject. But Plunket Medal was still thriving 35 years later in 1968, in time for Tony Jacques writing in Salient to remark cynically of that year's contest that "in an orgy of liberal values, eight earnest young men preached humanitarian cliches to a well-fed, self-satisfied welfare state audience".

And even that great and noble pillar of the Establishment, The Dominion alleged in 1957 that the art of oratory was dead, and that the contest was on the skids and would also be dead soon. Fourteen years later Plunket Medal is still very much alive. (So, unfortunately, is The Dominion.)

The impression that some people have of Plunket Medal oratory—especially those people who have never seen Plunket Medal—is of carefully rehearsed orators gesturing magnificently and ineffectively to a small, stiff-collared audience. But this is not in fact a true impression. It may have been true at some time in the past but it is not true now. Certainly a tremendous amount of preparation goes into the speeches, but the effect that is aimed at—and usually achieved—is one of spontaneity and the gaining of the audience's sympathy.

By 1963 even The Dominion had found that Plunket Medal wasn't dead and buried, and so it turned sour grapes. "Oratory," it said, "jars a bit... it's got the wrong tang. All we want now, surely, is plain, even complicated things, plainly said."

What then is the difference between public speaking and oratory? Public speaking is often no more than a coldly intellectual discourse satisfying the reason, and in comparison with oratory is narrow in scope. For oratory should convince the reason, stirring the emotions and impelling constructive action. Its whole basis is sincerity, which must tend to avoid exaggerations of fact, diction and manner, pomposity and dramatic elocution. An oratory must seek to inspire his audience. A public speaker aims rather to inform his audience.

It is true that most professional public speaking is far removed from oratory, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many public speakers—especially politicians—are so abysmally poor. The need to inspire people still remains. One need only to think of Churchill and Hitler to appreciate the tremendous impact and influence that the inspired voice can have on people and nations. Despite the age of mass written media in which we live, communication by word of mouth is still by far the most important means of contact between people. Plunket Medal aims to develop this faculty of communication and to show what great potential power the spoken word can still wield.

However, Plunket Medal is no longer the high point of the university year that it once was. It faces uncertainty, especially in view of the declining student interest in it evident in the last few years. Nor is it quite the social event it once was for downtowners, as reflected by the somewhat diminished list of dignitaries who will be present this year.

Indeed, 1971 could be a decisive year for the contest, since 65 is an appropriate age for a peaceful retirement. But the range of subjects being presented this year reveals a healthy concern with the problems of contemporary life, and the style and standard of speaking should match this concern.

Plunket Medal isn't everybody's thing but this year's contest proves to be thoroughly worthwhile, and deserves substantial support.

The speakers in order of appearance will be:
1.A.J. Adeane: 'The Hijacker'
2.Champa Chaudri: 'World Peace'
3.B.R. Newell: 'Enoch Powell'
4.J.G. Blincoe: 'U Thant'
5.D.C. Hutchison: 'Edward Alan Sanders'
6.P.C. Coles: 'Ecology: A Social Conscience'
7.H.P. Stubbs: 'Parihaka'
8.Rosemary Young: 'Social Justice