Every debater has experienced this in Opening Government(OG). After seeing your matchup, you hope for a simple motion, your prayers go unanswered as you lose faith in humanity when you see a complex motion with more words than a haiku. Your mind, your body and even a part of your soul enters a state of shock, as you scramble to find the first argument that comes to mind, scribbling as much as you can on a piece of paper so that you have something, anything, to avoid the embarrassment of freezing up on the floor and looking stupid. Like someone caught in quicksand, you struggle for a lifebuoy, end up in a death spiral and instead get… a doughnut.
Urban debate dictionary: Doughnut, also known as coming fourth in a BP debate and getting 0 team points.
There is no need to feel ashamed for feeling pathetic and helpless, every debater, however accomplished, has been in this situation before. The truth is that OG is in many ways the easiest position to win (2nd or better) in a British Parliamentary(BP) debate. Obviously this assumes a reasonable motion and a sane judge. No article, amount of training, or prayer will help you if either of these things is absent.
1. OG is the most formulaic position in BP debates. This means that it is the easiest to drill and get practice on your own outside of regular club training. Rumour has it that you can become the best speaker in the world by doing a Prime Minister(PM) speech every single day.
2. You have an incredible amount of control over the debate. Initiative is prized in every game for a reason. When you make the first move, you get to control and limit the ways your opponents respond.
3. It is the only position that is unaffected by other teams running crazy cases. We’ve all been in debates where a team decides to lose its collective mind and you’re forced to engage with their case and the judge hates everyone in the room and tanks all the speaker scores. Or when you’re closing and your opening decides to run an indefensible case and you have to decide whether you want to knife or sink with your opening team.
4. It’s the least responsive position especially if you are nervous and responding on the spot is not your strength.
Still don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the results of the World University Debate Championships (WUDC) in the past 10 years.
Mark Twain “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
WUDC Assumption 2008: Closing Government
WUDC Cork 2009: Opening Opposition
WUDC Koc 2010: Closing Opposition
WUDC Botswana 2011: Opening Government
WUDC Manila 2012: Opening Government
WUDC Berlin 2013: Closing Opposition
WUDC Chennai 2014: Opening Government
WUDC Malaysia 2015: Closing Government
WUDC Thessaloniki 2016: Opening Government
WUDC Hague 2017: Opening Government
With an admittedly limited sample size, OG has won 5 out of the past 10 World Championships, which is why debaters within some circles have coined the term ‘OG is the best G’ (which if you think about it, doesn’t make any sense, but let’s move on).
You may be asking, it’s well and good that world-class debaters do well in OG, but what good does that do for ordinary plebeians, proletariats and coffee shop philosophers like you and I? After all, isn’t it also true that in most bin rooms the team in OG gets a doughnut?
Urban Debate Dictionary: Bin room, also known as the place where teams have a lot of doughnuts.
For most novice debaters, with a preparation time of only 15 minutes, delivering a 7 minute speech after such a short prep time can seem impossible. This is the reason why they are more likely to end up 4th in OG as compared to the other positions, where they get additional time to find something intelligible to say.
When I first entered varsity debating, my debate experience was extremely limited, I had operated only as a 3rd speaker in both Asian and World Schools formats and survived through debates by making use of the additional time before it was my turn to speak. Like most other debaters making the step up from schools level debating, I struggled with debating in OG especially because I was expected to fill the Prime Minister position, the first speaker of any debate.
This is what I used to do, once the motion was released, after turning to my teammate and realizing we both didn’t know what to do, I would start a mad scramble for the first argument that came to my mind, scribble it down as quickly as possible, deliver my fancy opening line slowly, and then take a Point of Information (POI) at the 4th and 6th minute mark to fill up time in my speech.
After a decade of debating, I am unafraid of admitting that I still encounter debate motions that I know absolutely nothing about but nowadays I am usually able to deliver a
mind-blowing fairly competent speech because I follow 4 key guidelines.
1. Chill out. Do not be afraid. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to…doughnuts.
Fear, doubt, and panic is the biggest reason why teams perform worse in OG. 15 minutes is a really long time if you are completely relaxed about it. If you just closed your eyes now and meditated for 15 minutes, it would feel like an eternity. You may have the luxury of freaking out in the Asians/Australs or World Schools formats because you have a whole 30 minutes to an hour to calm yourself down and actually start prep. You can’t afford that in BP, especially when it’s only 15 minutes from the time the motion is released and you have to get to your debate venues, fighting people to get out of the convening area and walking long distances. If my mind is blank, instead of panicking in the room and stressing my teammate out, I go for a walk or even into the bathroom to wash my face. Sometimes giving yourself some time and space alone can help you think better. Even as a novice debater, it is rare that you will come up with absolutely nothing to say about a motion. Not worrying about it gives you the best opportunity to actually come up with a case.
2. Think through the entire debate instead of rushing to write arguments down. Don’t go “OMG I’M SPEAKING IN 15 MINUTES. I MUST WRITE SOMETHING DOWN. ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING THAT I KNOW." The urge to write is a coping mechanism for your discomfort and unease. This stems from the fear of having insufficient material and sounding like a babbling idiot trying to figure out what to say for 7 minutes.
Prepping for OG is not very different from planning how to write an essay for your exam. The worst thing you can possibly do in that situation is to scribble down points without first figuring out what the topic requires of you. As strange as it sounds, it’s actually better to have thought through the debate clearly and have nothing on your paper than to rush and write down anything that comes to your mind because you are more likely to have gotten the debate completely wrong
Don’t feel the need to place a hard time limit on discussion, don’t worry about entering the debate with a blank piece of paper and just making it up along the way, as mentioned earlier in my previous article, most debaters who have been debating actively for just a few months should have few problems narrating and constructing an argument once they have a decent idea of what the debate is about/requires of them. This is no different from having a regular conversation with someone else.
A lot of people think debates have 5 or 6 ideas, more often there is 1 core central issue, which every speech in the debate will come back to sooner or later. If you can identify that central clash, then all your arguments can be tailored to it, and you’re most of the way to winning from OG.
What if I don’t know anything about the motion or I have no idea what the central clash is? That’s where the next guideline comes into play.
3. Ask yourself simple questions and discuss them with your teammate.
If you do not know much about the motion, it would be futile trying to find arguments or answers to the motion. On the other hand, you should be able to come up with a list of questions quite easily.
a) Why did the adjudication core set this motion? What are the issues they wish to highlight?
There will be times where the motion is just bad and the person who set the motion was misguided, but this should be in the minority of cases and you are better off assuming the adjudication core is competent and that the motion deals with meaningful ideas. This is because your adjudicator will give you credit for setting up a meaningful debate in OG.
b) Has this ever been done before?
Are there similar policies that exist? What problems do they address? If the motion is about implementing a certain policy, chances are it is probably inspired by a policy that has actually been implemented somewhere at some point in time. Either that or it is probably a possible solution to a set of problems that currently exists. Refer to I have 99 problems but a policy ain’t one.
c) Who are the relevant stakeholders in this debate, how are they affected on either side?
Who wants this? Who doesn’t want this? Why? Thinking about who matters in the debate would allow you to find the most compelling reasons to support a motion because you would naturally discuss the impacts of the policy as well as the incentive structures of the people involved.
d) What are the burdens and trade-offs on both sides?
What does the motion expect you to prove in the debate? If it requires you to ban something, why? Are the harms significant enough for a ban? Can I make them sound significant enough? Are there alternatives that exist? Why don’t they work? Are we infringing on certain rights? Why is it ok to make that trade-off?
- Policy debate
What is the inherent problem with the status quo? What is the mechanism of your proposed solution, how does it help solve the problem? Why is your policy necessary, fair or effective?
- Value judgment debate: something is good/bad
What are the ‘values’ to judge this debate by? What is ‘good’? What is ‘bad’? Who are the greatest beneficiaries/most hurt by this? How has the world changed as a result of this? Compare what the world looks like with this/without this. Use the how, why and so what.
This goes to show that all you need is to ask the right questions and the case should naturally generate itself. Most importantly, debates don’t have to be won from Prime Minister, just make sure you do not lose the debate from Prime Minister. In the worst-case scenario where you really don’t have a full case, you just need to set up the basics of the debate so your partner can take the extra time to figure out how to make winning arguments. For example, Reuben and I were OG on As the editor of a right-wing media outlet, THW produce content to support Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. After a couple of minutes where we realised we both didn’t know much about the motion, we quickly realised that one of us had to be the ‘sacrificial lamb’ PM. I lost the game of rock paper scissors and spent the next 10 minutes trying to come up with a serviceable case to buy time for Reuben’s DPM speech.
This was the outline I drafted for my PM speech
1) What is the role and responsibility of an editor of a right-wing media outlet
2) What is the rationale for supporting Donald Trump given his obvious inadequacies as a candidate
3) Compare Donald Trump to the other candidates
4) Explain why Donald Trump may be misunderstood
Ridiculously simple questions, but it still struck the core of the debate and remained relevant throughout so I had done my job and Reuben could finish the rest.
4. Don’t go crazy with the characterization/framing/definitions. Be as reasonable as possible (still skewed to your side of course). In 3 on 3 formats, particularly Asian Parliamentary, characterisation battles tend to dominate the debate and there is a tendency to go as extreme as possible because the moment the judge buys your worldview, the arguments naturally stand. They are very important, but in BP, you want to be reasonable about it, because there’s a good chance that closing teams could easily ignore it and focus on a more palatable interpretation of the world. In addition, extreme characterisations and definitions tend to require far more substantiation which isn’t possible with only 2 speeches.
People obsess over what the definition is, how detailed does it need to be? Definitions almost never decide debates, they can lose but not win you debates, especially in BP.
Some people think about their definition before their arguments and that is in many ways crazy. It is odd to ask what you are going to do before why you are going to do it. If you spend the first few minutes of prep thinking of the issues, you are less likely to forget or ignore or run away from the issue. Have a clear sense of what your arguments are going to be before you move into definition, then it’s obvious what needs to be in the definition. Work out why you are doing something before you put down what it is you are doing. It is very easy way to lose from Opening Government, this is less likely to happen if your definition is created to suit your argument.
Unless you’re really sure, don’t do anything too wacko. That is the easiest way to violate the golden rule of debating which is give the people what they want. Like any service industry, your job is to give your client what they desire. During OG, the judge is thinking, “Dear God can we have a normal debate. Let this not be crazy, if it is mad, everything will explode. Some one will challenge and another person will redefine and I will die.”
3 simple rules to follow for definitions
1. They should be simple, as complicated definitions make debates explode, and your judge, you, or your partner/opponent may not remember all of it.
2. They need to be clear. The classic way to lose is to be unclear what your definition is, it should be absolutely crystal clear. Doesn’t have to be detailed, but it has to be clear.
3. Definitions should be brave. People in OG get pessimistic, defensive, damage-limitation frame. This is bad. If you don’t shy away from the debate, the judge will reward you for a good debate with a BIG CLEAR CLASH, because that is interesting. You will never get high speaker scores by defending narrow tiny defensive props because it’s boring. And it’s hard to say clever things when you are defending something cowardly.
There is a difference between brave and madness, working out where that line is tricky. Never define a motion to try and exclude and runaway from arguments. There are some debates where you have to do something funky. But 99% of the time give the judges what they want.
Example motion: THW hold community religious leaders responsible for their crimes of the community
By community leaders we mean the Pope, by crimes we mean the systematic rape and abuse of hundreds of thousands of children for a century if not longer, we will arrest him, take him to the Hague, might take conclave of cardinals, may dig out ex-popes and try them ex post facto as well, will have an army of lawyers with unlimited budget and it will be televised.
It is not crazy to suggest that Pope is complicit in covering up, not controversial to suggest this is a systematic crime or rape, which is a crime against humanity. The rest of the definition is just there to make it look braver rhetorically. You get higher points when you let people have fun.
Save time by using analogies when setting up debates if you want to legalize cannabis, regulate them exactly like cigarettes. Rather than go through all the details, just say its like something. e.g. Sanctions, levied on apartheid South Africa, effective, target elite, work via international shaming, let’s move on. Citing precedents makes things a lot easier.
Remaining relevant vs having a winning case
One of the biggest reasons why debaters are afraid of OG is the prospect of facing 4 opposition speeches, all attempting to destroy your case, without any ability to respond. This results in an obsession with arguments that you think are the most difficult to respond to. It is important to realise that there is a key difference between winning all the arguments and being relevant throughout the debate. Truth be told, it’s actually really difficult to construct a case that will withstand constant attacks from 4 whole speeches (assuming all the debaters in the room are of roughly equal ability). If you concern yourself with creating a case that is difficult to rebut, it is more likely that you will miss out on the crucial clashes in the debate, and probably stress yourself out in the process.
If both Opening Opposition(OO) and Closing Opposition(CO) are responding to your case, it’s a fantastic thing because it means you’ve discussed the most important issues in the debate. So you’re likely to rank above OO because they haven’t taken down your case (since there are still things that CO can respond to), and you will probably rank above CG (because a competent CO will only prioritise your material in OG if it is more important than CG). In that case, you’re likely coming in 2nd behind CO at worst. So remaining relevant long after your speeches are done is the most important thing, not constructing ironclad arguments.
Scattershot vs sniper shot
You’ve probably seen debaters or gotten advice that you should try to run as many arguments as possible in OG to shut out CG and to prevent them from coming up with new material. While that is certainly an effective strategy, and you could theoretically run 8 arguments over 2 speeches, it’s quite difficult to do in practice. Because less time is given to developing each individual argument, it means that you have to be ultra concise with the analysis, and efficient with your choice of words and use of language. All that while trying to manage time efficiently. Often, what happens is that debaters attempt this and fail at explaining most of their case, guaranteeing that they will end up in the losing half. So only attempt this once you’re fairly adept at analyzing arguments efficiently, but even then, consider that it sometimes might be effective to just focus on 2-3 core issues in the debate and guarantee that you will win them and get full credit for it.
Points Of Information (POI) as a lifeline
Sometimes POIs can help you. Opponents may ask clarification type questions if your setup is unclear, these questions can help remind you to provide additional analysis to make your characterization/policy more robust. Of course it is in your opponent’s best interests to help you make your speech clearer because attacking an unclear case in Leader of Opposition (LO) is a recipe for disaster, due to wasted time, or possible case shifts later on.
Opponents may point out missing links in your argumentation and introduce new elements into the debate that you may have missed out on and can now extrapolate arguments from. Some opponents may even forward their arguments early on and give you the opportunity to preemptively engage them. Since PM has the greatest disadvantage in terms of informational asymmetry and the inability to engage the rest of the debate, these POIs become hugely beneficial for the PM, which is also why you should not provide such POIs to PMs.
Take the first POI before you enter into your substantive arguments but after you are done with your case set-up, characterisations, and policy. If you are struggling for material, you do not want to take a POI which can be answered by your existing material anyway. You are more likely to face meaningful questions and challenges after you have outlined your team’s setup, which would
1) require you to take some time to deal with
2) give you sufficient time to ponder over in the rest of your speech
3) likely to reveal parts of your opponent’s argumentation.
Take a 2nd POI preferably from a different team than the 1st POI in the transition period in between your arguments. This will often allow for a new line of attack from the opposition bench and may inspire different arguments while you are speaking. It also looks good because you engage with both opening and closing teams.
Finally, make sure you give POIs to try and resurrect your material during the debate. Remind your opponents that your arguments were valuable and try to goad them into responding and dealing with it. This is the only way you can engage with the rest of the debate after your speeches so you can't just twiddle your thumbs and expect everyone to remember that you gave amazing speeches.
If you’ve reached the end of the article, congratulations, you should be well on your way to having success in OG. There’s quite a bit more strategy involved in terms of individual speaker positions, but we’ll leave it for another day. Keep a look out for more BP related articles in the coming weeks.