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May 29, 2008 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

Debsoc hosts a great public debate: Wellington Electorate Candidates have a bun fight

Apologies to everyone who I told that I would blog about this event straight away. I didn’t. Im a lazy bum, but I also had more pressing matters to attend to. I digress, on Monday the illustrious Victoria University Debating Society hosted a public debate on school vouchers. The Motion was “that New Zealand should implement a system of school vouchers”.

Speaking for the Affirmative was Roger Kerr from the Business Round Table, Heather Roy – Deputy Leader of the ACT party, and Stephen Whittington – student debater extraordinaire, and according to the facebook event that went around – Latin scholar. On the negative was John Minto from the left leaning Education Action Group, Grant Robertson – Labour Candidate for Central Wellington, and Arthur Graves of the Principals’ Council of NZ. A pretty star studded lineup all round.

The audience trudged in, the left and the right were represented. The first front of the Rutherford House lecture theatre was filled with Young Nats and thier ACT on Campus Chums, followed by the Young Labour crowd and thier associated sympathetic leftists, with the rabid libertarian and anarcho capitalist wing of the debating society filling up the back. Jolly good. Stephen Franks walked in and plonked himself right in front of Grant Robertson just before the debate started. More on that later though.

Roger Kerr got everything off to a great start, quoting Marx. This somehow proved that socialists didn’t like the state running education. Because Marx said it. Therefore everyone praying at the altar of leftism was living a lie. Or something. He then went on to elucidate the current system in NZ and explain that there is already school choice in NZ, but only for the rich. He proposed something akin to a flat tax for schools, just give everyone the choice of school they went too. Kerr explained that NZ should look to Sweden, it has a pretty good school voucher system. It all seemed pretty reasonable to be honest. Kerr did get a little bit confused however, and stated that he attended a springbok protest in 1991.

John Minto followed. All notions of measured reasonableness went out the windows. Minto was Mad. Not just at Kerr getting the springbok tour date wrong. According to Minto, school vouchers segregate societies and only seek to promote the rich, not the poor. He also launched into an attack on Milton Friedman, this caused most of debsoc to recoil in horror, and I think I saw Stephen Whittington vomit in his mouth a little bit.

Heather Roy followed Minto, and focused more on the ‘family’ side of things. To many seated in the crowd this was slightly odd. It didnt really seem to have much to do with the current issues at hand in the debate, which was more about choice and freedom, than rhetoric that sounded more Family Party than ACT. She did get a few laughs for handing out ‘scholarships’ to various members of the audience. She gained a few laughs of the not so friendly variety when she stated that “no child should be left behind” and that shopping for schools was essentially the same thing as shopping for cereal. Economically maybe, but the phrasing left a lot to be desired. Heather Roy explained that under her system, each school voucher scholarship, would be around 100,000 dollars and adjusted for inflation. To which debsoc leftist luminary Joe Connell interjected “No Tax cuts then!”. Hilarity ensued.

Grant Robertson was next up, he started off by acknowledging Stephen Frank’s presence. That ruffled a few feathers. Glorious stuff. Grant launched into a pretty decent rebuttal of Kerr and Roy, explaining that the Swedish system also required a 60% highest tax bracket. That kinda took the gloss off. Grant then launched into a strident defense of the Labour government’s current policies, pointing out that although there was some way to go, the system was more or less working for the benefit of New Zealanders. His speech was good, but at times it did sound like he was just reiterating government policy. Well, hang together or hang apart I suppose. Bit of a shame he made a sly dig at the exclusive brethren at the end of his speech. It didn’t work very well, and sounded like an attack on Muslim fundamentalism. Usually im all for that, but in this context it didnt do him any favours.

Stephen finally got his chance to speak after sitting through two speeches which visibly agitated him. After some rather witty retorts to interjections from Grant Robertson he got right into issue. Taking the classic anarcho-capitalist/friedmanite line he posited a concise economic case for the benefits of school vouchers. Explaining that under his teams (quite convoluted and unclear at this stage) system, the poorest would be benefited the most. Unfortunately Stephen got sidetracked into the more radical side of the issue, which invariably had him singing the praises of the free market. To the scorn of certain segments of the audience (and the delight of others). However, it must be noted that he did not really address the point raised earlier on by Minto, that segregation could be exacerbated. Furthermore, his point that Kings College would just throw open its arms to vastly increased students numbers (at the expense of its current exclusivity) wasn’t very convincing.

Finally Arthur Graves got his chance. Much like Kerr at the beginning of the debate, he presented a reasonable, and slightly personal take on the issue. Being a principal and all that. Graves, unlike all the other speakers actually presented some real data to the debate. But all debaters know that 3rd speakers shouldn’t bring new material to the debate. Naughty Naughty. It was quite good stuff though. However, at this stage the audience had been whipped into a frenzy by the ideologically combatant speakers before them. Stephen Franks just couldn’t hold himself in any longer and started heckling poor old Graves. Young Labour came to his defense and started heckling Franks back. It looks like its going to be an interesting Wellington Central campaign. There’s certainly no love lost there.

Poor Arthur was slightly hamstrung by the commotion, which was annoying because I personally was enjoying listening to his clam and reasonable approach, but it was not to be and the debate ended on a tense note.

Questions were fielded to the speakers at the end of the debate. Most noteworthy was a question to Roger Kerr from Joe Connell asking Kerr if he would support a school voucher that gave extra funding to the poorest children, an innovative take on the issue. Kerr responded that he wouldn’t. I was too busy watching Minto heckle Kerr that I couldn’t get down the reasons for why Kerr didn’t respond. Oddly, a lady from Naenae College, with Children in tow, had come to the debate with the specific purpose of attacking Grant Robertson, asking him to explain why she is forced to choose between two negative options in her local area. Grant responded by rejecting the premise of the question, that all local schools were horrible. After repeatedly denied attempts to ask a supplementary, she stormed off.

All round, a very entertaining evening. A very special thanks to the full debsoc executive, Christopher Bishop the President, Kathy Scott Dowell the Vice President and the speakers for agreeing to come to speak to what at times was a pretty hostile environment. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Affirmative team won. It was decided by audience vote. Perhaps a better reflection of the plurality of the audience then the quality of the debate. Still, a good time was had by all, and I cant wait for debsoc to host another one.


About the Author ()

Conrad is a very grumpy boy. When he was little he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was moderately good, but when he was mean he was HORRID. He likes guns, bombs and shooting doves. He can often be found reading books about Mussolini and tank warfare. His greatest dream is to invent an eighteen foot high mechanical spider, which has an antimatter lazer attached to its back.

Comments (9)

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  1. banditeo says:

    ‘To which debsoc leftist luminary Joe Connell interjected “No Tax cuts then!”. Hilarity ensued.’

    God it sounds klike so much fun. Wish I was there only.

  2. I’m glad the Joke was not lost on you.

    Or was it…

  3. peteremcc says:

    Problem is that Joe’s comment shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how vouchers work. Giving a voucher to every child is simply changing the funding method – theres no new spending, so no affect on
    tax cuts.

  4. not JJW FAN! says:

    I think the humour stemmed more from Heather harping on about adjustments for inflation Peter. Which IS related to tax cuts.

  5. Anonimo says:

    I can feel the hilarity ensuing

  6. Chris says:

    Conrad – in a roundabout way, Roger Kerr did say he would support increased voucher amounts for the poor. He could have been more direct about it but I certainly got the impression he said yes.

    Nice review.

  7. Stephen Whittington says:

    A couple of points:

    1) Private schools are currently far cheaper to run that public schools. Most scientifically conducted studies show modest improvement from school choice. Some others show that there is not much difference. If there is not much difference, the remaining argument for school choice is that we can achieve the same outcomes for a lot less money.

    2) In regards to segregation, most studies reveal that segregationb is lowered. Because often areas are segregated, zoning reinforces this. School choice tends to increase integration. I found Graves’ comments about the beginning of school vouchers interesting – he said it was introduced to increase segregation.

    He is right. Private schools tended not to discriminate on the basis of race like public schools did. To extend control over private schools, the state introduced vouchers. A condition of being able to accept them was that the school was segregated. This is a problem with public control, not private schools.

    3) In response to Joe’s question, Kerr agreed that voucher systems could be introduced with decile funding (in fact, in the US vouchers are often introduced only for the most needy). The point that Kerr made was that funding should be based on educational need, not family income. That is, where children had greater needs, the voucher should be worth more. It seemed that he empirically disagreed with the ideas that poverty made educational needs greater – but he did not oppose them in principle.

    4) I actually explicitly said that Kings College would probably not accept any student – although it likely would expand. The point I made was that even where parents cannot get their child into their 1st best school, they still have their 2nd best, 3rd best, 4th best school, and ….

  8. for your information says:

    The debate’s over.

  9. Chris, I see what you mean – but he did dodge Joe’s question, he saw the issue as one of need and not extra funding, its to that particular distinction that he agreed, not the original proposition brought by Joe.

    So in an almost 180 degree roundabout way, he did answer the question.

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