A culture of debate

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 11 August 2017

The Prime Minister had the “personality of a rock”. The Minister of Health was “Dr Death”. The Minister of Finance was “as authentic as a $4 Rolex”. And the Foreign Minister had “the energy of a small hill”.

These are some of the insults hurled at the government by Labour’s new Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis on TV last weekend.

As I watched Mr Davis’s blast on the Q+A programme, I wondered how long it must have taken him to rehearse these lines.

My second thought was this incident tells us about New Zealand’s political culture.

It is not too surprising to hear a senior politician call his opponents names. That sometimes happens in the heat of a debate.

But it is astonishing that such name-calling would occur in such a seemingly scripted manner during a TV interview.

Though passion is a positive, there is a difference between a strong argument and unnecessarily personal attacks. It does not reflect well on New Zealand’s politics.

Kelvin Davis’s Q+A incident reminded me of a prize just established in Germany, the “SENSS Award for Discussion Culture”

Donated by entrepreneur Reinhard Wiesemann, SENSS stands for “Seid Euch nicht so sicher!” (“Don’t be so sure!”).

As Wiesemann describes it, his intention was to highlight the need for a kind debate between people of different beliefs. No-one person should believe that they alone possess the truth.

The award is not meant to promote tolerance or to declare who won debates. Instead it shall only remind people to be kind to one another in public discourse.

Wiesemann’s initiative is welcome, and perhaps we should have something like it in New Zealand as well. A reminder that political debates need to be civil and focused on the arguments is timely.

And though we do not have an award for civility in public discourse yet, the Initiative of course hosts an annual debating tournament. It has the same motivation of promoting good debate.

In fact, the two public semi-finals will take place in Auckland and Wellington next week.

To win these debates, our teams need to make their cases well. Insults will not win you the adjudicators’ applause.

We look forward to hearing from our panellists David Seymour (ACT), Julie-Anne Genter (Green), Hon Peter Dunne (United Future) and Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell.

It will be an opportunity to show that politicians can be kind to one another, even if they disagree strongly.

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