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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 10. 1966.

Sixty years of the Plunket medal

Sixty years of the Plunket medal

Text Of The Toast Speech At The 60Th Anniversary Dinner

A short and lively account of the history of the Debating Society.

The first number of Spike, June, 1902, stated: "A Debating Society is a necessary adjunct to every university," and this fact seems to have been realised when our university was opened in 1899. The Students' Society founded almost as soon as lectures commenced, immediately inaugurated a Debating Society. Rules and standing orders were drawn up and a committee was elected at the first meeting held in Wellington Girls' College on June 3, 1899. Routine business was not enough for the founders, however. A debate had been prepared to follow and, the business done, Mr. Fitzherbert stood up to move a subject chosen with astonishing prescience, "That any system of control of the drink traffic is inimical to the highest development of civilisation."

The membership was 45 and at the end of the year the financial position was stated to be "good." There was a credit balance of £3/5/8.

It seems to have remained fairly steady round this figure for several years and this may account for the fact that Lord Plunket. having possibly a more realistic idea of what constituted a good financial position, not only endowed his medal but on his return to England sent back a supply of medals to last for several years.

By 1905, from its own funds, and with a legacy from the Wellington Literary and Debating Societies Union, the Victoria College Debating Society was able to institute the prize named after that Union, and the following year a prize for new speakers was introduced.

Lively and provocative topics were debated from the earliest days; Prohibition, The Rise of the (British) Labour Party. Votes for Women, and. above all, Home Rule for Ireland.

In 1905, ••One of the most successful debates held this year was on the perenially fresh question of Home Rule . . . The attendance was about 120, a record for an ordinary meeting. Though some of the Irish Party came armed with clubs, no breach of the peace was recorded."

Two years later "in the first debate G. V. Bogle and J. M. Hogben moved 'That female franchise should be granted in England'." The arguments of the movers were directed not so much towards showing that there were good reasons why women should vote as that there was no good reason why they should not. They enlisted the sympathy of the audience and neither the persuasiveness of R. Mason nor the blandishments of S. Elchelbaum availed to convince to the contrary. Eichelbaum endeavoured to show that though the female franchise in New Zealand is a success, the inferiority of women of the United Kingdom in political discernment made it quite impracticable there.


The enthusiasm, the elan, the wit of our founding fathers, the eagerness to come to grips with contentious matters shines brightly through the records of early days.

Nor were these their only qualities. That they had taste and judgment, too, is shown by the subjects they rejected and decided not to debate. Subjects such as these: "That a hospital called Drone Hall be built for professors who lead a dronish, slothful life," "That women should be carted out of the university and not allowed to return before they are 50 years old." and two subjects with a remarkably contemporary atmosphere (I can even imagine the present committee rejecting them!):

"That the College Council should consider what gentle methods may be of service to win the Government over to them" and

"That no university distinctions should be given to the grossly idle, ignorant and pompous."

The programme for one of these early years concluded with a debate on the subject of cremation, an issue described by the mover as a burning one. We are told that the subject produced a fiery discussion, both sides going into harrowing details. The result was a deat-heat.

The liveliness, enthusiasm and the native ability of the members of the society and their committees carried it splendidly through the first ten years. It is not to be wondered at then if in the years just before World War 1 there was a little falling off and when the war came the society was obliged to discontinue its set programme. But it did not give up debating. Nor was the original spirit falling. We find them in June, 1915, arguing "That the attitude of the Asquith Ministry in the negotiations preceding the Great War was such as to merit the condemnation of the English electorate" and six weeks later "That war is incompatible with Christianity."

Attendances may have been smaller, but the society's intellectual and moral robustness was as large as ever.


It took a year or two after the war for things to take a decided turn for the better. The wave of interest in politics which travelled round the world touched New Zealand. This and the return of old stalwarts and the growth of a new, able generation of speakers made the opening years of the 1920s the beginning of an era of tremendous development, not only numerically but in morale. In a memorable tussle with the then Governor - General (which I shall refer to again) the society found it necessary to express publicly a fact which had not up to that time been precisely ascertained or tested. It had a conscience.

In the meantime, they deplored the revolutionary tendencies in the New Zealand Party, they said "no" to the public ownership of industry, by one vote they gave Ireland self-government, they declared the Peace Treaties of [unclear: 191] "economically impossible [unclear: an] politically unjustifiable," the condemned censorship [unclear: ove] political literature in [unclear: Ne] Zealand and abroad, [unclear: the] argued "that the Russia Revolution, being the [unclear: oppo]tunity for the true genius Russia, intervention in Russian affairs was unjustifiable, and they viewed with [unclear: gra] apprehension the activities the Navy League in [unclear: sta] schools.

Gov-Gen Dispute

To return to the matter the conscience of the [unclear: socie] and the great dispute of 1922 23-24 centring around [unclear: th] patronage of the society [unclear: b] his Excellency the [unclear: Governor] General, whose identity I [unclear: d] not care to disclose.

In 1922, the secretary of [unclear: th] Debating Society wrote: [unclear: "I] has been a somewhat [unclear: eventf] year. It is at present [unclear: unce] tain whether the secretary [unclear: w] have to proceed to [unclear: Downi] Street, which has, no [unclear: dou] ere this, learnt of the [unclear: acti]ities of the society, and [unclear: gi] assurances that discussion the great problems of the [unclear: da] does not constitute [unclear: disloyalt]

"One of the early [unclear: brickba] bestowed on the society" [unclear: cor] tinues the report, "relates the patronship. At the [unclear: la] annual general meeting [unclear: th] Governor-General was [unclear: r] elected patron, and his [unclear: acce]tance of the position [unclear: w] sought. In reply came a [unclear: r]quest for a list of this year subjects for debate. This [unclear: w] complied with. Finally a [unclear: com]munication was received [unclear: sta] ing that his Excellency [unclear: 'do] not feel he can accept [unclear: th] position as the [unclear: subjec] chosen for debate [unclear: inclu] some with which he does [unclear: n] think he can properly [unclear: assoc] ate himself . . . Until [unclear: su] time as the society decides [unclear: t] omit such subjects from [unclear: f] programme, he must regret fully decline to accept [unclear: th] office of patron."

"With all due deference Excellency," commented secretary, "it is submitted the position taken up by is untenable. To decide question on the basis of [unclear: ther] or not members will [unclear: uss] academic or political [unclear: jects] is surely to lose sight [unclear: he] true nature of a Deng Society. The very [unclear: esce] of a debate is the idea there are two sides to [unclear: cy] question. And to say students should seek entenment only on subjects [unclear: er] than politics, appears aordinary.

Are we to discuss the great burning subjects of the such as 'That the study poetry is of greater intel[unclear: ual] value than the study history'?"

[unclear: his] was the kind of thing, the secretary, which in past had attracted "vast [unclear: lences] of 5 or 6."

[unclear: e] then went on to impute responsibility for his Exency's action to a group of [unclear: ticians] chiefly the then [unclear: ister] of Education, Mr. [unclear: r], who was having Victoria [unclear: lege] investigated and was [unclear: ilring] renewed oaths of [unclear: ilty] from teachers.

[unclear: Ntempt]

[unclear: taxing] sarcastic the [unclear: secre]commented, "Thanks to profound intelligence of [unclear: e] of the chosen representes of this young democ[unclear: y] society's activities now appreciated from [unclear: th] Cape to Stewart Is[unclear: d]." He dismissed the in[unclear: ues] of Mr. Parr and col[unclear: gues] with contempt.

[unclear: he] society decided to man-without a patron and went to a golden age of unpreceted vitality and growth. [unclear: tiortly] after the investiga[unclear: is] of the Minister of Edu[unclear: lon] into its activities the [unclear: lety] debated "That insist[unclear: e] on external symbols of [unclear: alty] retards rather than [unclear: ists] true patriotism," and the end of the year it [unclear: intained] its annual fixture [unclear: inst] the Social Democratic [unclear: ty] arguing with Messrs. P. [unclear: ser] and T. Brindle about [unclear: ialism] and intellectual [unclear: edom]. "The society can be [unclear: ed] on," said the Secretary, pursue its policy of en[unclear: tening] the community on problems of the day."

The following year before a [unclear: cked]" house, the commitaided by two powerful [unclear: ers] from Harold Miller and [unclear: in] Beaglehole on academic [unclear: edom], withstood the chai [unclear: ge] of a vote of no confi[unclear: oe] by 113 votes to 76, and 1925, with the arrival of a Governor-General, it [unclear: cara] motion to reinstate the [unclear: ce] of patron. The new [unclear: vernor]-General sent for a [unclear: y] of the syllabus (which as lively as ever) and [unclear: ing] perused it, accepted pleasure the office of [unclear: ron] of the society.

[unclear: t] gives me equal pleasure say that the name of the patron was Sir Charles gusson, father of the prepatron of the society.

[unclear: perhaps] the boast of the [unclear: etary] that Downing Street heard of the activities of Debating Society at Vic university wasn't as [unclear: pty] as some might have [unclear: ought]. In fact, it is certain barely a year later, wning Street heard quite a about it.

Encouraged by the great cess of the early 1920s, the committee eagerly accepan offer from the Oxford on to send a 3-man team New Zealand, and early in Messrs. Malcolm Mac [unclear: ald] (the son of Mr. Ram Macdonald, then Prime Minister of Great Britain), A. H. Hollis and J. D. Woodruff twice debated against Victoria teams. They delighted audiences of nearly 2000 with their wit. They deliciously scandalised even members of our society with their levity and irreverence. In a debate on the British Labour Government, one Victoria debater. Mr. Martin-Smith, said time and a fair trial would be necessary to evaluate the achievements of the Labour Government. In his reply, Mr. Woodruff, a law student, said the formula of time and a fair trial was all right, but if he were the Judge he would give the Government a fair trial first and time afterwards.

These three delightful characters, the first overseas team to visit us. had hardly left the country before the NUS of Great Britain cabled the wish to send an official team. But the financial guarantee of £60 was too much for the nerve of the student association executive, which was about to refuse the offer when the Debating Society committee heard of it and gave a personal guarantee of the £60. And so the Imperial Debating Team (one man each from London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and London Universities) debated in Wellington at Easter. 1926.

After this, exchanges of visits overseas became more common. In 1928 three American charmers arrived from Bates College, Maine. They were followed by four representatives of the University of Oregon, and these American calls were returned in 1930 by the first Victoria team to tour overseas, Messrs. G. R. Powles, W. J. Mountjoy and W. J. Hall. In an impressive tour of the United States, this team debated against 29 universities and proved what most local critics had already thought to be true: that when matched against representatives of notable overseas universities our people were far from being overshadowed. No wonder that this was so. The record of the Victoria College Debating Society in Joynt Scroll contests at that time would have made this fairly clear. By 1932. of 27 contests for the Joynt Scroll, Victoria had won 14.


The society entered the years of the great depression as an extremely strong club, and emerged from them even stronger. The early 1930s saw record attendances and record numbers of speakers.

They debated Christian Missions, the Arbitration Court, the 10 per cent wage cut, Russia; they deplored American influence in this country. There was a lively debate on trial marriage, but after the noise of the debate had subsided, when the motion was put, it was discovered that a system of trial marriage had only two supporters. And as these were of the same sex, another great reform was nipped in the bud!

These were the years, too, of the riots, of section 59 of the Finance Act (forbidding criticism of the Government) and of the suppression of Spike. Some of this of course flowed over into the meetings of the society and the record of the year's activities reported improper disturbances at meetings caused by the feeling which had arisen in the College between the Loyalists and their troublesome opponents. "We must observe," writes the secretary, "that the attitude adopted by these opponents has ever been decorous and in accordance with the rules governing debates and defining the functions of the chair. The actions of the Loyalists, we regret, have not invariably been distinguished by the same characteristics.


"The Debating Society has. however, come through an unusually stormy session with undiminished popularity." It was in the early 1930s that an ordinary debate of the society was first broadcast. It was "live"—without editing. There was. of course, a full house, all dressed in the usual haphazard student way. But William Penrose Rollings, one of the finest debaters of that period and of a good many other periods, too, I suspect, had been invited out later to a formal occasion, and when he took the platform his immaculate evening dress and splendidly groomed appeal - ance caused an excited buzz of comment and a giggle or two. But this died down as he stood in front of the microphone to begin his speech. Into the quiet stillness of expectancy dropped the words of Max Riske, clad in a scruffy old sweater: "Oh, for the days of television." Pen Rollings never wavered. He waited until the roar had died down, and with his usual charming smile turned and said, "Mr. Chairman, all I can say is that when the day of television comes, some of us will profit more than others."

In the second half of the 30s, the rumbles of war were growing louder and debates became even more packed and more earnest. Two most successful visitors' debates at this time were those of Mr. J. A. Lee against the Hon. Gordon Coates when well over 100 people had to stand to hear the discussion on confidence in the Labour Government, and the 1939 debate on the same topic between Dr. McMillan and Mr. S. G. Holland. Both the judge. Mr. W. P. Rollings, and the chairman pointed to the large numbers of people who, unable to find even standing room in the old gym. were standing outside on the verandah, leaning through the open windows, and both took the opportunity of stressing the need for a new students' association building.

The war hit the society as hard as any other club at Victoria. The Emergency regulations naturally severely restricted the usual wide range of provocative subjects and the society's finances were sadly affected by the cancellation of broadcast debates, also a war measure.

But the programmes offered were neither innocuous nor timid. They asked whether the teachings of Christ offered genuine hope to humanity, they argued the suitability of the family in its present form, they suggested that New Zealand should hitch its wagon to the star-spangled banner, they wanted to know whether pre-war liberty was a luxury they could no longer afford, they debated their confidence in the Churchill Government, they questioned Irish neutrality, and when the visitors' debate came they wanted to know whether the Chamber of Commerce was more likely to save the world than was the Communist Party.

With the end of the war came the sudden upsurge of enrolments at Victoria and the arrival of rehab ex-servicemen, earnestly searching for philosophical reasons for their wartime experiences.

And again the hot breath of controversy puffed vigorously through the halls of the college and from the platform of the society: the enormous row over WFDY, the Charter Club v. the Socialist Club, the Waterfront Strike and the Emergency Regulations. In all this, said the editor of Spike, the liberal tradition of Victoria continued through the Debating Society.

And today, things are as vigorous as ever, as witness these splendid arrangements for the anniversary celebrations. "A debating society is a necessary adjunct to every society," said our founders. "Unfeigned controversy is the life-blood of debating," said W. P. Rollings. 30 years later. What ample proof of these facts have been given by the society in the 69 years of its existence. Our founders meant that there should be at this university a place where people could be taught to think on their feet, where they could improve the technique of public speaking. But worthy and important as these objectives may be they were not the main objectives of those who founded the society. In almost 70 years of our existence they rarely have been.

Chief Objective

Their chief objective was to provide a place in the university where all faculties, all disciplines, could meet to hammer out the most controversial of issues. This was its essential part in a university education. The right of the society to do this has been vigorously defended by its officers and members on many occasions since the ideal was first postulated. Prom each of these battles, some small, some heard all over New Zealand, a piece of a tradition has emerged, a tradition now covering many years. It is one on which we may all look back with pride.