I am lucky enough to be able to speak today about one of the best debaters the Monash Association of Debaters has ever seen, and someone who has had an enormous impact on not just my experiences at university, but also this club as a whole: Gemma Buckley.
While many of you may not know Gemma, there is absolutely no question that you have felt her enormous and enduring impact here at Monash. Her work on the executive, her competitive debating experience, and her work following her graduation all speak volumes about the important role Gemma has played in MAD. However, before going into any of that, I wanted to talk about how much Gemma means to me, and why she means so much to the club.
It’s no secret that Gemma did not come from privilege. Indeed, she came to Monash having never done a single competitive debate. However, Gemma always said that the one quality she liked most about MAD was that nobody ever judged her for her background; she was always invited to debate and participate as much as any other student, and was always treated as an equal amongst her peers.
I believe that Gemma’s origins make her achievements within the club all the more impressive, but they also emphasise the importance of that part of MAD’s culture. For me, MAD has always been about giving everyone a chance, seeing everyone as equals, and recognising the hard work of its members that ascribe to those ideals. And, for me, Gemma represents the greatest possible success of that approach, and the best evidence for why it should continue.
Gemma’s Contributions to the Club
Before I talk about Gemma’s considerable debating achievements, I wanted to focus on her internal contributions to the club. As she became a more experienced member of the club, Gemma was always willing to debate with any of those within which she saw potential. She was renowned for debating with those who hadn’t had as many opportunities as others, and routinely took the time to mentore those members on not just debating, but also their hair style, dress sense, and dancing (in)ability.
Gemma did all that because she truly cared, and the time and interest that she took in people’s lives transformed them and their university experiences in ways I cannot properly describe.
But her contributions did not stop there. Gemma served on the Executive for a record seven years, including as President, and introduced a huge number of reforms for the advancement of the club. She instituted the precursor to the current ‘Novice Program’, created specific novice categories for sponsorship, and initiated the still extremely reputable MAD Mini in 2010. She was renowned for endlessly devoting herself to club activities, often taking sole responsibility to help when others were unavailable.
Obviously one of the most important aspects of the life membership category is debating achievements, and Gemma’s career has been no less impressive than her cultural contributions. She had a number of initial debating successes; a Semi-Finalist at Easters, a Grand-Finalist at Women’s, a Quarter-Finalist at Worlds, and a top 10 speaker and Semi-Finalist at Australs. Gemma also earned a strong reputation as an adjudicator, judging the finals of Australs, Easters and Women’s, as well as serving as the CA of Easters in 2014.
However, it was not until later in her debating career that Gemma made two extraordinary achievements. Her first, at Australs in 2012, where her Monash 2 faced off against the combined might of Monash 1 in the Grand Final. It was an extraordinary (if uninteresting for the non-MAD members of the audience) debate, with some of the best debating the club had ever seen. The scrappy, inexperienced Monash 2s held their own against the well-seasoned Monash 1s, and the debate came down to a (still) hotly contested 4-5 split decision. The club sang six songs that day to commemorate each of the speakers in the Grand Final, and each member fought over who would get to write Gemma’s.
At Worlds in 2014, Gemma had another chance to capitalise on this success, finishing as the third ranked team going into the finals. Unfortunately, Gemma was struck down by an enormously unfortunate luck of the draw, bowing out in the Octo-Finals. Nevertheless, she still received the astonishing rank of second best speaker overall, demonstrating her total dominance over international debating.
For me, Gemma’s achievements mean all the more in light of her origins. She is eternal proof of the potential of MAD, and an enduring reminder that, together, we can achieve anything.
Contributions to the Community
It is through these considerable achievements that Gemma earned universal respect and admiration from not just MAD, but also from the debating community as a whole. She served as CA of Australs this year, after she had left the club, but did so in a way that was quite unique: She arrived on the first day of the tournament wearing her MAD shirt, and constantly fielded queries (and complaints) from MAD members. This wasn’t just because Gemma was easily noticeable in her black shirt, but because she had earned a reputation of sticking up for those who needed it most, and MAD members most of all.
However, Gemma’s role in debating has not stopped on graduation. Notably, Gemma has spent the last two years teaching debating in Asia, and has recently moved to the United States to do the same. While some may be worried that the societies she teaches may soon overtake us, I am confident that we can take the lessons that she taught us and always stay one jump ahead of the breadline (or, perhaps, one swing ahead of the sword).
But her contributions have also come in focusing the community on regional representation. Gemma has campaigned extremely strongly for a greater focus on the specific challenges faced by debaters from Asia, and constantly ran matter sessions on regional issues that most of us had never heard of. She did this to educate us, to broaden our horizons, and to remind us what MAD was always about: Helping others who may not have had the same opportunities as others.
In conclusion, I believe that Gemma’s contributions can be summed up by the following motto: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”. For me, Gemma will always be that noble spirit, and it is why I am so happy to be able to nominate her for life membership.