The Australian’s Attack On Sydney Uni’s Debating Society Is The Worst “Controversy” Ever

The Australian and Eric Abetz are extremely mad at... a student debating club?

st. paul's university of sydney

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In one of the biggest beat-ups we’ve seen recently (which is saying a lot), yesterday The Australian splashed their front page with an “exclusive” story about how race and gender politics was “swamping great debate” at the University of Sydney’s debating society.

Yep, the front page story on Australia’s only national newspaper was about a university debating society’s affirmative action policies.

Since then, the affirmative action policy has been called “just insane” by conservative commentator Rita Panahi, and “Stalinist dogma” by Liberal senator Eric Abetz. The Daily Mail chimed in with an extremely confusing and incorrect claim that the club’s policies mean that half of its debaters must “identify as transgender”.

What Is Everyone So Angry About?

This is what they’re up in arms about: all across Australian university debating, there are guidelines on how many non cis-male debaters your university must have if they want to go to the national competitions. The policy was driven by university students who noticed that men kept being chosen for the highest-ranked teams while even incredibly talented women were put in lower teams, or were being judged particularly harshly.

The University of Sydney took this logic one step further: they introduced guidelines to ensure that there are enough people of from culturally diverse and low socioeconomic backgrounds for the first big tournament of each year.

Each one of these guidelines has a distinct, specific reason behind them.

Almost all top Sydney debaters come from private schools, where they could afford regular debating training — so it makes sense to try and balance that out by giving talented public school students a shot at becoming star debaters.

And there’s a big judging bias against debaters who speak English as a second language: putting in policies to help support people of colour helps to correct that.

“Some adjudicators may perceive people as less persuasive and not listen carefully to their speeches simply because they speak with an accent,” Kevin Lee, the president of Sydney University’s debating society, told Junkee. “Others may, either consciously or subconsciously, hold the perception that debaters who are not white are less capable or eloquent.

“Debating is also frequently not seen as an activity that children from minority backgrounds can or should participate in — particularly at many private schools with strong debating programs.”

And this is why the media furore has been so dumb.

“Political Correctness Gone Mad”? Try Again

Take Senator Eric Abetz’s comments on the policy. He told The Australian that it was an example of “stifling political correctness” that was going to “damage the future generations who are taught this nonsense as fact”.

The underlying argument is that things like quotas and affirmative action are pointless: we don’t need them because these competitions should be merit-based only.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to prove Abetz wrong. Because the top speakers get ranked at debating competitions, the imbalance between men and women is incredibly clear. It’s also obvious to see that the University of Sydney’s policy is working.

Only one woman has been on a world championship winning team in the past five years — and she came from the University of Sydney.

In the past eight years, only one woman has been the best speaker in the world championships — and she also came from the University of Sydney.

“We are the best debating society in the world, and our excellent non cis-male debaters are a vital part of that,” said Steph White, a former University of Sydney debating president who is also the current president of the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Association (yeah, it exists).

“At last year’s Australasian championships all of the women who ranked in the top ten speakers were from the University of Sydney, and at two recent world championships we have produced the best female speaker in the world. Our policies enable that excellence and we are incredibly proud of them.”

“I benefited from affirmative action in my first year at university, and this year I was named the third best speaker in the world. Affirmative action doesn’t undermine my, or anyone else’s, achievement. We have affirmative action for non cis-men because they are routinely perceived as less persuasive speakers, dismissed as irrational, and often receive less training opportunities at school.”

The Media Is Getting Worked Up About One Single Debating Tournament

This whole fuss is about the upcoming Australian Intervarsity Debating Competition, which will happen over Easter. Last year the University of Sydney’s top team, which consisted of three women, absolutely steamrolled opposition on their path to victory. This year, the university has chosen another top team of three women who are hot favourites to win, and in doing so, they’ve gone above and beyond the quota requirements.

This whole debate is pointless. It’s just a pathetic dog-whistling exercise where conservatives get to say the words “non cis-men” and “trans” and think that that’s enough to be persuasive. Abetz should know better, and White thinks so too.

“Frankly I would be more worried if Senator Abetz approved of what we were doing. We invite anyone from The Australian, or Senator Abetz himself, to swing by for a debate and see how they fare.”