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A successful run in university debating can set up a student for a powerful career in politics or law. But there are questions over a toxic culture and persistent accounts of misconduct. By Janek Drevikovsky.

Harassment continues in university debating

In the parallel universe of competitive debating, Australia is king. Since 2000, our universities have won the World Universities Debating Championship — the Olympics of debating — 10 times. No other country comes close.

Our top debaters are an elite breed: they spend years in training. Huge amounts of money and thousands of hours are given over to esoteric forms of ritual argument. They fly from tournament to tournament, attend lavish parties and rub shoulders with future judges, executives and politicians.

“It’s a sport for rich people,” says Romaan Dulloo, the 2020 president of UNSW Sydney’s debate society.

Debating’s highest flyers start young, often in primary school. Typically, they attend a private or selective school, where they debate frequently, arguing either the “affirmative” or “negative” of topics such as: “that parents should receive an extra vote per child in elections” or “that poverty should be a defence against charges of theft”.

They also receive regular coaching, usually from star university debaters, who are paid figures unimaginable to the average 20-somethings: $60 an hour is stingy; the best coaches take home more than $100 an hour.

In comprehensive schools and outside capital cities, students receive barely any coaching and might debate a few times a year. The consequences are stark: private and selective school debaters are chosen for prestigious state teams, which compete against each other in a national tournament.

When students graduate to university, their high-school debating records come with them. “Unless you go to a selective school or a private school,” Dulloo says, “you have no ability to get to the upper echelons of debating.” Indigenous debaters, he adds, are almost unheard of.

For those who make it, university debating is incredibly rewarding. “I made most of my friends through it,” says Craig Reucassel, a member of The Chaser comedy group and a debater in the mid-’90s. A graduate of Bowral High School in the NSW Southern Highlands, Reucassel was one of the very few debaters who didn’t attend a selective or private school. He didn’t let that mar his time in debating: “It was brilliant,” he says.

Debating is not just a contest. It’s a ready-made social life, with countless weekends and holidays spent travelling a tightly defined “circuit” of tournaments, some of which last more than a week.

Often, all debaters stay in the same, packed hotel, with nightly debauchery and immense bar tabs. At the yearly world competition, one night is devoted to the consumption of  a potent South African home-brew called “yakka”.

Many debaters throw themselves into this heady environment. “It becomes their whole life,” says Genevieve Couvret, a former debater from the University of Sydney. “It’s what gives them their sense of identity.”

Debaters are only half-joking when they describe their activity as a “cult”. As in any intense, high-pressure, alcohol-fuelled environment, things can go wrong. “There are whispers of sexual misconduct all the time,” says Couvret.

Several insiders, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke of a string of recent allegations against a senior and successful Australian debater. According to the allegations, the debater made unwanted sexual advances towards a high-school student, also a keen debater. Later, when that student arrived at university, the senior debater is said to have bullied them relentlessly.

The younger student lodged a complaint with the debating society, but no action was taken. More than two years went by. In that time, the senior debater was accused of sexually assaulting another younger debater. Eventually, he was banned from events.

This is not debating’s only dark story: in fact, most debaters can recite a long list of misdeeds they have witnessed or experienced while on the circuit, from groping on a dance floor to sexual assault.

For the past year, with a pandemic raging, debating has been in a state of virtual suspension. Participants have attended most tournaments via zoom and from the comfort of their bedrooms. But as the face-to-face circuit slowly comes back to life, many debaters expect the same, bad old behaviours will return.

Part of the difficulty is that debating societies are run by students. At tournaments, volunteer “equity officers” are meant to keep participants safe. Usually they are debaters themselves, with no professional training.Sometimes, equity officers are friends of the people accused of the bad behaviour.

Similar problems plague debating’s organising committees and steering groups. “You’re all volunteers,” says Dulloo. “How much time and energy do you want to take [to act against a debater accused of misconduct]?”

The conveners of a recent tournament, for example, received complaints of unwanted sexual contact against a male debater. When they tried to exclude him from the competition, he threatened to sue each of them for defamation. The conveners backed off.

Some think debating’s strange social hierarchies entrench misconduct. “There’s an intense social power that debating gives to the people that are good at it,” says a former executive of a debating society, who did not wish to be named.

During a tournament, debaters receive “speaker scores” or “points” for their performance. At the end of the tournament, the scores are totalled and a ranking, or “speaker tab”, is published online.

Everyone knows who’s at the top of the tab. And if you’re at the top, “people are more likely to put up with your shit and put you on this pedestal”, the former executive explains. Often, white males do the best, meaning white males get away with bad behaviour.

Dulloo agrees: aggressive, self-confident and “masculine” speaking styles tend to be rewarded, giving men social capital that they sometimes abuse.

Other debaters, however, deny that the problem is unique to debating. “I don’t think it’s intrinsic to debating in any way, shape or form,” says Reucassel.

And debating itself is indisputably valuable. “It’s really good for your general ability to think on your feet and do the problem-solving you have to do in your later life,” says Theodora von Arnim, a former world-level debater. “The training in how to think is unparalleled.”

That rare level of training is the foundation for scores of public careers. Greg Hunt was a debater and is now Health minister. So was Paul Fletcher, Communications minister. So was Christian Porter, former attorney-general. A young Tony Burke, one-time Immigration minister, and his Labor colleague Daniel Mulino both debated in the ’80s and ’90s.

The same goes for the law. At university, Christian Porter’s favoured debate partner was James Edelman, a vast legal brain who Porter later appointed to Western Australia’s Supreme Court. Edelman is now a High Court judge, where he sits with Jacqueline Gleeson, another former debater. The president of the NSW Court of Appeal, Andrew Bell, used to debate with Paul Fletcher, both of whom also attended Sydney Grammar School.

Even the church has its debating alumni: Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, was so enthusiastic about debating that his first pamphlet, Speech: The Mirror of the Soul, charted its history at his Jesuit alma mater, St Ignatius Riverview.

Yet reading this list, legal academic Rosalind Dixon says, something stands out: hardly any of the names belong to women. A one-time champion debater, she says: “Very few of the women who debated are now in the federal parliament or in state parliament.”

Debating’s sexist culture was once deeply ingrained. One female debater, active about 20 years ago, recounted how, after she won a spot on her university’s top team, a group of male debaters told her to stand down: they would be debating on the top team, not her. It took a bureaucratic struggle to claw back her place.

That kind of conduct is less common today. “There’s always a bias,” says Couvret, “but I don’t think it’s a boys’ club anymore.” There are simply more women in debating: in 1990, barely 8 per cent of speakers at the Australasian Championships were women. In 2020, 48 per cent of speakers at the same tournament were women or had non-male gender identities.

Several Australian debating societies say they now have policies to ensure victims of sexual misconduct are taken seriously. They also have initiatives designed to include under-represented groups, such as women, LGBTQIA+ people and people of colour.

Some of these initiatives are affirmative action quotas, extra training for minority debaters, and special tournaments where men are barred from competing.

The last idea — a women-only tournament — dates back to the early 1990s. Jo Dyer, who was a University of Adelaide debater at the time, remembers the campaign to make that idea a reality.

Dyer’s friend, a precocious debater and gifted young woman, was “absolutely instrumental”. That friend’s name was Kate, who late in her life accused Christian Porter of raping her at a school debating tournament in 1988. Porter strenuously denies this account.    

“Kate had become very involved in feminist politics on campus,” Dyer says. “There was a women’s caucus [in 1991] and Kate advocated a women’s tournament. The first one was held soon after that.”

The Australian Women’s Parliamentary Championship, as it was then known, is now the Australasian Wom*n’s Debating Championships, a tournament for women and non-men. Wom*n’s is a yearly fixture on the debating calendar, a place of solidarity for female and non-binary debaters.

Kate’s schoolfriends called her a future prime minister or High Court judge. While she struggled with her mental health, her fellow debaters were propelled into the high places once marked out for her. She died by suicide last year, without reaping debating’s harvest of power, privilege and public life.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 10, 2021 as "Harassment continues in university debating".

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Janek Drevikovsky is a freelance journalist. He writes for Justinian and the Gazette of Law and Journalism.