What was the Mosman Debating Society?

Mosman Debating Society masthead (NKCR)

The Mosman Debating Society of Sydney, Australia flourished from its inception in 1917 until some time after 1985. Before 1957 (when television commenced in Australia) the Mosman Debating Society was a premier venue for the formation of public opinion and the dissemination of ideas, and its debates were regularly covered by the press.

Originally only members of the society spoke at the debates, but after World War II non-members could also participate. Debaters included local councillors, retired judges, members of parliament, business owners, union leaders, ministers of religion, diplomats and entertainers.

The debates followed a standard pattern: an opening speech of 20 minutes in support of the motion, followed by a speech of 20 minutes against the motion. There was then an opportunity for anyone “from the floor” to speak for ten minutes, followed by a period for questions from the floor, and concluding with ten minutes each for the proponent and opponent to rebut and sum up. Interjections were allowed.

There was a certain amount of formality, designed to mimic parliamentary debates. The Chair was addressed as “Mr Speaker” or “Madam Speaker”, the proposer was “The Premier”, and the opponent was “The Leader of the Opposition”. Other speakers were addressed as if they were representing a constituency of their name:

  • “The Honourable Member for Smith” (for a man named Smith), or
  • “The Honourable Member for Miss Jones” (for an unmarried woman named Jones)

The topics for debate were diverse. There were no “taboo” subjects, nor was there any notion of political correctness. Occasionally the topics were frivolous, or blatantly indefensible, the idea being to give an opportunity for the most skilled debaters to polish and demonstrate their skills. More usually, the debates featured serious, important, and often controversial subjects. Although politics was a mainstay, other debates centred around society, ethics, religion and the arts (with Shakespearian debates being popular). A list of upcoming debates, and debating society chit-chat, was published every two months as “The Mosman Debater”.

A 1947 debate on the “rocket bomb range project” had to be shelved following advice from the Attorney-General that “The Approved Defence Projects Protection Act … does not prohibit discussion of the merits of the project … however it does prohibit the advocating or encouraging, without reasonable excuse, of the prevention, hindrance or obstruction of the project”.

Popular debates drew hundreds of spectators. The numbers dropped after the introduction of television, when some debates had fewer than two dozen attendees. The members included a strong contingent of Eastern Europeans who had fled their countries when the iron curtain fell. They enjoyed the freedom to debate political issues in a way that was not available in their previous countries (although they would have been dismayed to learn in the 1990s that the Special Branch of the New South Wales Police had been maintaining a card index on people expressing “subversive” ideas).

The society’s catchphrase was “What Mosman says today, Sydney does tomorrow”, and it had a motto:

To bridge the gulf of ignorance and doubt,
And let, by friendly argument, the truth come out

Nowadays few debating societies remain active, and in this internet age it seems unlikely that organized grassroots debating will experience a resurgence.

A brief description and an outline history of the Mosman Debating Society was written up in a 1972 self-published booklet entitled “What Mosman Says Today”.

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