Winning the republic debate

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The ARM's new national director, David Morris, is going head to head with the ACM today. Lewis Holden, a one-time university debater and full-time pub politics enthusiast, gives David some tips on how to win the debate.

Lewis Holden debating Noel Cox, 2008.

David Morris is certainly living up to his promise. He's ramping up the ARM's campaign for an Australian republic, this time by securing a debate with the ACM's dear leader, David Flint, and his trusty side-kick, Jai Martinkovits. Of course, David Morris doesn't actually need my help at all — he's a former diplomat and more than capable of putting a clear, coherent case for an Australian republic to the audience. He also has Senator Matt Thistlewaite on his side.

This article is intended as more of a klaxon to other republicans whenever faced with similar formal debates, based on my own experience.

Back in 2006 I had the privilege of being a member of the glorious Victoria III debating team,  albeit not for the state but the University of Wellington, known as Victoria. We reigned supreme at the 2006 "Joynt Scroll", the universities debating championships. I was probably the weakest team member in terms of persuasive speaking skills. What I really enjoy about debating is the strategy of it all — when to deploy arguments, when to throw your opponents off, how to judiciously use points or order or points of information.

I'm not sure of the exact format of the debate. There will be two members from each side, presumably speaking for equal amounts of time. Usually in Australasian-style debates there's three speakers, with the lead speaker delivering the summary following the third speaker of the opposite team. There are no questions, just points of order. Given there's only two speakers in this debate, it will probably follow the British parliamentary tradition of debating. In fact I'm sure of it — and the mere mention of the word "British" to the ACM would've caused extreme salivation. They would've cringed at the thought of using the colonial Australasian style. This means that there are no summary speeches, but there are "points of information", i.e. questions. This is a great thing for republicans, so long as they're used judiciously.

The key to a good point of information is timing, and the key to good timing is figuring out how the other side will run their case. In my view it's probably going to be a simple re-hash of 1999 for the ACM, since they're still fighting that battle. Which is great, because all that needs to happen is a simple shout of "relevance!" or "that was 12 years ago!".

Then there's the topic, the "moot". The moot for this debate is "Should the republic debate be put back on the agenda?". This is a great moot for the republicans — it puts the monarchists on the back foot right from the start. It means they are on the negative side of the moot, while the republicans are affirmative. It's a natural fit for both sides of the debate. The goal of the affirmative team is therefore simply to convince the audience (I'll come back to this in a moment) that the republic debate must be put back on the "agenda". This is where the main argument will happen — over what the agenda is, who controls it and what it means in terms of what the public wants. On their side, the negative team must show the affirmative argument for putting the republic debate on the "agenda" are wrong.
NZ Republican Movement chair Lewis Holden with the Australian Republican Movement new national director David Morris.

As I mentioned above, a key aspect of debating is that you're there to convince the audience: not the other team. This is important and should guide the republicans. The ACM will no doubt try to do a number of things to pull  the affirmative team down, to destroy their credibility. From what I've seen so far, this is likely to be:

  • Making snide remarks about David's role, and how it is funded by the ARM. If they do I'd raise a point of order on relevance to the debate, or a point of information asking if they'd disclose their own wealthy backers. That'll stop that attacks dead in its tracks.

  • Talking endlessly about the republican model. Now, we can easily beat them on this point but it will take time that you don't have. Luckily they'll probably hang themselves by talking about East Timor, Zimbabwe or some other nonsense. Call them out on this. The audience will laugh at them.

  • Scratching whatever internet polls together to try and show public opinion is against a republic. In fact they know the opposite is true — otherwise they woudn't turn up to debate the ARM. They're more likely to talk up/turn-out to see the Queen at the 2011 CHOGM.

  • I have to say apart from the usual FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) the ACM spreads, they've not really got anything new they can throw at this debate. Their only realistic way to make something of this is to point to public apathy on the "agenda". That of course doesn't equate to more support for the monarchy. As the debate during the 1990s demonstrated, the more scrutiny the monarchy is given the lower – and lower – its support is.

    The battle will be over the "agenda". Since this is a Labor venue, they'll probably play to the Aussie battler – and issues that are arguably more relevant – jobs, access to education, paying the mortgage, feeding the kids. These are bread and butter issues. Of course, the response for the ARM is simply that these things do matter. So much so that we want a head of state who knows what it's likely to experience job insecurity, get their kids into a good school, pay off a mortgage and put food on the table. None of these things apply to Australia's current head of state, of course.*

    *And while I'm at it, don't get distracted by this nonsense debate. Call it out as nonsense and point to the research showing the ACM is wrong to call the Governor-General the head of state, and is simply trying to confuse the issue.

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