The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949
Most readers of this magazine will be aware that the Debating Society is, apart from the S.C.M., the oldest Club at Victoria College. It is not proposed that this article should be devoted to a factual account of the debating activities at Victoria over the past fifty years, nor even over a shorter period. Rather is it hoped that a general treatment, by touching on prominent features of the Society's development, will give readers a good idea of what the Society aims at achieving.page 88
The first point of interest is the fact that all debates inside the Society are conducted on an Oxford Union basis. As debates are rarely held against outside teams (apart from Joynt Scroll) this means that the general idea is to decide all questions for debate on a division of the House. However, a provision is made for judges to place individual speakers. Points are awarded and the best debater at the end of the year becomes the winner of the Union Prize. This Award has never had the public glamour associated with the Plunket Medal, but in many ways it represents the result of harder and more consistent work.
Of course, the Plunket Medal is commonly regarded as the highest award of the Society, and over the years has become a mark of general University distinction. It is an award for oratory and is given on the decision of a majority of three outside judges at a specially organised public contest. Many criticisms have been made over the years concerning specific results, and probably few contests have resulted in a decision acceptable to all critics. This controversy usually stems from differing ideas of the nature and purpose of Oratory. Notwithstanding this, the contest has survived since its founding. For many years it was honoured by Vice-Regal patronage owing to its origin, while it is interesting to note that the earliest contests were decided by a vote of the audience.
Victoria's overall record in the contests for the New Zealand University Bledisloe Medal for Oratory, and for the Joynt Scroll for Debating, has been good. It has been suggested that the audience at Victoria is the hardest to please in New Zealand, and that this results in a particularly hard-hitting type of debating which is often very successful.
Of course, all judges do not agree about styles, and some Victoria teams in recent years have not met with the success that had been expected.
Debating at Victoria has undoubtedly been strengthened by the emphasis on law studies here and the consequent attendance of large numbers of students aiming at a career at the Bar. Indeed the lists of our prizewinners include far more of those who have been successful in law than of any other group. This has led to the criticism that the Debating Society is merely a school in sophistry for budding criminal lawyers. Even so, it is fair to say that the general tenor of debating has been sincere throughout.
It would not be a complete study, in fact it would be a distorted one, if no attention was paid to the kinds of topic that have been debated. It is a fact that the interest in political matters at Victoria is, and has been, very high. Consequently members have divided around the political issues that concern the world as a whole and New Zealand in particular.
Naturally, groups are strong from time to time, and it is probable that any reputation Victoria possesses is a result of battles inside the Debating Society. This reputation is the result of the onesided exaggeration of the activities of the more sensational groups by the press in New Zealand. In ignoring the existence of those groups who hold to moderate and conservative views, and highlighting the existence of extremists, the organs of public opinion have presented a false picture.
Nevertheless, all sections of the Society hold closely to the rights and privileges of free and frank discussion. After all, such discussions are primarily an internal matter; and if outside interference ceased or had never existed, the whole situation would be much happier.
Past members of the Society can be sure that even if the achievements of the present do not always equal those of the past, nevertheless the traditions behind them are just as strong. An examination of records shows previous variations in standards and enthusiasm. This still happens, but the important factor still is the attempt to develop clear thinking and the proper organisation of the ideas and expression of the members. This will go on, and Victoria can probably be sure of continuing to contribute many people to the service of New Zealand and the world. A large number of them will be helped by membership of the Society. Thus will the Debating Society fill the valuable place in University affairs it has always done up to the present.
K. B. O'Brien