Debating contests spawn poor culture

The location of the allegations made against Christian Porter (which he has vigorously denied) was the World Universities Debating Championship at Sydney University in 1988.

As it happened, two other now Federal Ministers also attended the event – Greg Hunt and Paul Fletcher.

Indeed, a lot of parliamentarians (both here and overseas, especially the UK) have been competitive school and university debaters. It has helped spawn an unfortunate culture in our Parliaments. True, not as destructive as the pervasive misogyny, but destructive nonetheless.

The main skill learned in debating is to develop the capacity to support or oppose any proposition using any argument, any selected “fact” or interpretation of selected fact, however specious or spurious, however exaggerated or mendacious. That skill, of course, is to be used in “winning”.

Belief, conviction and search for the truth have nothing to do with it. The school and university debating exercises are conducted in a moral vacuum. The aim is to marshal whatever you can lay your hands on to help your side win.

It is a completely different exercise from the scientific method or, indeed, critical thinking. Those exercises are searches for the truth, not a quest for victory.

The debaters, on the other hand, are given a conclusion upon which they base their facts and arguments.

In critical thinking and the scientific method, both the conclusions (hypotheses) and all the available facts upon which they are based are tested. If they hold up, especially by the use of repeat experiments and control groups, they are accepted until a better explanation or alternative hypothesis passes the test.

In debating, however, one side wins and that is the end of it.

Unfortunately, within the major political parties, the debating culture has gone hand in hand with the rise of aggressive partisanship and the intolerance of dissent.

Once a major party has adopted a position on something, all members of the party are required to adopt that position. And the skills learned in debating contests – where people have to argue in favour of something they might personally oppose – eminently equip the party member for that exercise.

And it is all tailored with the aim of helping their side win – not to chew things over to develop the best policies after taking into account the differing views of many.

The debating culture helps each side get locked in to their positions. Prime Minsiter Scott Morrision has only got it half right when he talks about “the Canberra bubble”. There are, in fact, two bubbles – one Coalition and one Labor.

The members in each party reinforce each other. They each sit with each other in the Parliament, reinforcing each other’s view, like for like. It even happens with like-minded MPs within the major parties. Climate denying right-wingers George Christiansen and Craig Kelly sat next to each other before Kelly left the Liberals.

Maybe if their seating was all jumbled up, it might help break down the tribal thinking of the place.

The university and school debating exercises are also excellent training for people in the lobbying and special-interests industries. The conclusion upon which they base their facts and arguments is that any special treatment they are getting is in the public interest and should be continued and expanded no matter what.

The absence of the scientific method and critical thinking in Parliament is best illustrated by the occupational backgrounds of members of the Federal Parliament.

A 2013 Parliamentary Library study showed (and nothing has changed since) that there was not a scientist of any kind among them unless they were disguised among the 5% listed as “other” or if you count medical practitioners, dentists and nurses (2%) as scientists.

Business, law, political consultants, advisers, lobbyists, party and union officials, state MPs, public servants, political research and project officers and administrators made up fully 86%. 

Women’s participation is poor, but looking at occupational background (and its concomitant cultural imprint) Paul Keating’s epithet of the Senate as “unrepresentative swill” could well apply to the whole lot.

In short, the place, is full of people who were in business, law and politically related jobs (people who want to be winners and want to be in it) and devoid of people trained to make rational, evidence-based, dispassionate decisions.

Porter is quoted as saying he wanted to, or would, BE Prime Minister at 50. A winner. He was not quoted as saying he wanted to help make Australia a better place for its people.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a classic product of the debating-society mentality. As a Daily Telegraph polemicist (he was not a journalist) covering the EU he artfully marshalled his selected facts and exaggerations to argue (as he would in a university debating society) that “this House supports the UK withdrawing from the EU”.

It was fun. He could win the “debate”. He could BE Prime Minister.

But anyone with an ounce of critical thinking or scientific method could have told you that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would be the economic and social catastrophe it has become. But Boris and Nigel “won” the debate.

The Covid crisis is the exception that proves the rule. In Australia, for once, the politicians (Coalition and Labor, state and federal) acted on the scientific advice, despite the best school- and university-debate winners saying we must open up.

On climate, however, debating points of selected “facts” and spurious argument remain blocks to progress on acting upon what the scientific method tells us is a looming catastrophe.

Yes, we must have more women in Parliament if we are to have better policy, but we must also broaden the base of parliamentarians from the debate-winning political class to people working in fields where results and testing upon evidence mean everything and where debate point-scoring and “winning” mean nothing.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 13 March 2021.

5 thoughts on “Debating contests spawn poor culture”

  1. When I joined the Senate in 1987 I did a count of both Members and Senators and found that only three, including me, had had hands-on-the-bench experience as scientists so this is not a recent phenomenon. One reason is clear: for a working scientist to stay up to the mark (s)he must stay abreast of the very latest in the field of experimentation involved. I do not believe this is consistent with the heavy workload of a member of parliament. If the parliamentary candidate is only successful in filling a three year term (s)he is very unlikely to easily return to the forefront of research. And if that scientist has young children that is a further impediment to entering this risky job. I was 57 when I entered the Senate and my children were pretty much independent. Even though I had been an environmental activist since the mid 1950s it was only then that I could try and change things from within the parliament.

  2. Thank’s Crispin for an excellent analysis of how our parliamentary representation works against our common interest.
    The initial conclusion, of each political party, defines their policies and debate to support them:
    LNP – income and wealth must be encouraged for the few and protected against the greedy hoards that want their share of the pie to increase.
    Labor – the working class are the assets that create the wealth of the nation and must be protected against the greedy rich few that want their share of the pie to increase.
    Greens – the environment and refugees are more important than the wealth of the nation and must be protected against the interests of the working class and the few rich.

  3. I am currently reading Gough Whitlam’s ‘The Truth of the Matter’ and discussed his policy mandate for change with my grandson. This touched on the ‘It’s Time’ advertising program following 23 years of LNP government under Sir Robert Menzies. My grandson, aged 12, recognised the difference between an optimistic campaign versus current fear and absence of policies in current campaigns.
    The ancient Greeks recognised the need to have both reasoned facts and the need to garner support in a democracy. This is reflected in Aristotle’s ‘Art of Rhetoric’ (or art of persuasion) where alliteration, poetics, three word slogans and being last to speak are each considered. Aristotle recognised, for example, “The Rule of Law” or “Stop the Boats” would be sufficient to persuade the masses ie the votes. Costello was one for three word alliteration. This style is so “effectively erudite and endless” it doesn’t even have to make sense or even be applicable to the facts at hand.

  4. Why do parliaments respond uncharacteristically to some problems e.g. the pandemic? It seems to be that a large unexpected crisis is necessary to invoke the response: collapse of France in May 1940 for the UK, Pearl Harbor for the USA, the bombing of Darwin, Cyclone Tracey, Port Arthur massacre, the Asian tsunami for Australia. The 2019-2020 bushfires might have been the trigger for a change in attitude to global heating had the pandemic not intervened.

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