The history of the University of Melbourne itself is one that has been shaped largely by intellectual debate and discussion amongst its students. This in itself may seem unremarkable, given that institutions of learning and inquiry tend generally to promote progressive thinking and argument. However, in the history of this university, student debating holds a particularly significant place.
The University’s formative years in the 1850s and ’60s fell at a time when the most fundamental of society’s tenets – Christian doctrine – was being critically re-examined by the evolutionist theories and philosophies of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and others. Through debates conducted mostly within the student body, the intellectual development of the University reflected both a revolution in the way in which people questioned the world around them, and the reaction against it.
Fittingly, the formal establishment of the student debating society in 1876 was marked with a debate on Darwinian theories of evolution, with the topic ‘That this House believes it was possible that life might have evolved from matter’. The Debating Society is easily the oldest student organisation in Victoria and pre-dates both the Student Union (1884) and the SRC (1906).
Evidence of radical debate at the University extends perhaps as far back as 1809. At the opening of Trinity College in that year, Professor Wilson was at pains to reassure his audience that the supposedly dangerous new wave of free thought had not infiltrated the University:
“I have heard people say that there was a great deal of thought and discussion among students, and that this might endanger the faith of theological students. I deny that such free discussion exists at the University.”
If indeed the Professor’s sentiments were founded in fact at the time they were uttered, they did not remain so for long. Student debates continued to take place in the remaining part of last century with increasing popularity. Trinity College was one of many groups within the University to conduct debates on a wide variety of topics. Its Dialectic Society formed an ‘Essay and Debating Society’ in 1877, to debate various issues following the presentation of prepared essays by members. Among the fifty-two topics it considered in the period to 1890 were:
Was Russia justified in declaring war against Turkey? (1877) That the influx of Chinese to the Colonies should not be encouraged (1880) That the means lately taken to suppress bushranging (i.e. Kelly) in this Colony was efficient and that the action of the Police in the encounter at Glenrowan was justified in the circumstances of the case (1880)
The University Union, founded in 1884, conducted smoke nights, socials and debates, as did smaller societies such as the Science club. In 1898, the Historical Society debated individualism and socialism, with the “followers of the red flag” reported to have been outnumbered hopelessly by the side led by John G. Latham, a future Chief Justice of the High Court.
The Law Students’ Society conducted a debate on conscription in 1915, in which, according to one witness, “Menzies (and others) … spoke, but contributed nothing.”
Despite the extent of student debating near the turn of the Century, the University maintained a strict control over its subject matter and administration. When the Public Questions Society was formed in 1918, the Professorial Board demanded the right to appoint members to its general committee, and to sanction its topics of discussion.
The aversion of administrators to student debates was revived when inter-collegiate debating was introduced in 1927. As Graham McInness records, the Master of Ormond College, D.K. Picken, was opposed to debates in general:
“He regarded it as immoral for a man to defend a cause in which he did not passionately believe. Debating Societies were frivolous bodies which set cynical young men at each other’s (verbal) throats in immoral abandon.”
For these reasons, Ormond College was not “encouraged” to partake in these debates.
Despite the presence of such policies, student debating continued to gather strength at the University, with a transition in the 1930s to team debating from the old practice of hearing speeches from an opener and a responder, and from the floor.
Manning Clark, for one, was adamant in his belief that debates had an important intellectual function to perform, when writing in the relation to Trinity’s Dialectic Society in 1936:
“The Society does not exist purely for the purpose of cultivating perfection in public speaking. The Society should be a forum for the dissemination of ideas.”
The late B.A. Santamaria, often attributed the awakening of his interest in politics as a result of a 1938 public debate, in which he spoke of the Spanish Civil War and the clash of values it represented for the Western civilisation. The young Manning Clark, in the audience of the PLT that day, would also later remark how this debate first illuminated for him the two competing beliefs and value systems between which he would waver – that of traditional Christianity and the rationalist ideologies born of the enlightenment.
Following the Second World War, discussions among students assumed a distinctly political, and increasingly left-wing slant. Society ‘evils’ including racial prejudice, international conflicts and the ‘celluloid religion of Hollywood’ became the subject of widespread argument, and served to expand the popularity of debating at the University.
The 1950s saw an expansion of the Society’s activities in the context of a much smaller-scale Intervarsity debating scene. The formidable team of John Cain jnr and Richard McGarvie gained prominence in the early ’50s, whilst 1963 must have been a particularly interesting year, with current former Federal Education Minister David Kemp serving as President, with his Vice-President being one Gary Evans.
The 1960s saw the establishment of what is now the Australasian Intervarsity championship, which Melbourne subsequently hosted in 1969, 1972, 1979, 1986 and 1991. Success at this level was common for several years, but it was way back in 1976 that MUDS achieved its last Australasian IV win. The followed a ‘drought’ akin to the fabled ‘Colliwobbles’ in which Melbourne, historically one of the strongest debating universities, regularly reached the Semis and Grand Finals at both Australasian and Worlds levels, yet somehow contrived to ‘fall at the last hurdle’.
During the 1970s, at a time when several student unions supported some rather extreme policies, most notably the destruction of the state of Israel, a public debate on the issue was held. It is likely this was the largest debate in MUDS history, with Wilson Hall filled to overflowing, and the crowd voting by a margin of over 2 000 people in favour of the Jewish state’s right to exist. In 1978, MUDS conducted a special series of debates with teams from Oxford and Cambridge, as it had done in the 1930s. The entire series attracted an aggregate audience of over 12 000 people, with the young Greg Craven dominating.
1981 saw another great leap forward for quality debating with the establishment of the World Universities Debating Championship. Melbourne remains one of the few universities to have participated every year and one of the highlights of the Society’s 122 years was its highly successful hosting of the 1994 championship, involving over 400 participants, with the Grand Final in the Victorian Legislative Council being broadcast on SBS.
The late ’80s and early ’90s were periods of frenetic activity in the expansion of the Society’s activities and profile. Links with the University were assiduously cultivated and former Vice-Chancellor David Penington took a particular interest, allowing the Society unprecedented access to University resources which was the envy of the Debating Societies. His support even extended to successfully lobbying the State Government in 1994 to ensure that debating societies were the only student clubs to be exempted from its voluntary student unionism legislation! Professor Penington was duly appointed Honorary Chairman whilst former Premier Sir Rupert Hamer had become patron in 1988.
The infamous MUDS annual dinner was inaugurated at Ormond College in 1989, with Bob Ansett taking time out from his various financial crises to be the first guest speaker. In time the Dinner became of the most well-known events at University and has attracted a succession of notable speakers (of varying oratorical quality), with highlights being Cheryl Kernot (1994), Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop (1991), and Sir Ninia Stephen (1993).
Highly lucrative sponsorship deals were also struck with PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Freehill Hollingdale & Page, the latter which until recently endured to this day and continued to be of particular benefit. In the 1993 election campaign, the ‘Great Debate’ which ushered in ‘The Worm’ was also notable for the appearance in The Age of two of the Society’s members as guest adjudicators of the Debate. The 1998 election also saw two former MUDS Presidents and Life Members, Greg Hunt (1988) and Rufus Black (1989) performing a similar role.
Upon his retirement as VC in 1995, Professor Penington was made the Society’s second patron, with his successor, Professor Alan Gilbert, assuming the role of Honorary Chairman and providing continued support and assistance. The following year, the Easter IV in Adelaide saw the twenty year IV drought unexpectedly broken in triumphant style, with the feat being repeated twelve months later when Melbourne University hosted the tournament. Today the Society continues to benefit from its past and expands its core of membership and expertise, whilst also embarking on new projects.
March 1998 witnessed the inaugural Melbourne Debate, a variation of the age-old University tradition of formal public lectures. The debate featured noted academics and University alumni Robert Manne, Janet McCalman, Graeme Davison and Stuart McIntyre considering the motion “That Australia’s Historians should wear Black Armbands”.
The success of the society continues today. In recent years, the society has won the Australian Intervarsity Debating Championships (2015) and continues to make the finals of a number of international intervarsity debating tournaments.