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Case Construction

You have a topic. You have a week or two — or perhaps just an evening — to prepare. Where do you begin?

What does it mean?

Only the Affirmative team needs to define the topic, but both sides need to know what the debate will be about.

  1. If you don't understand a word, or a phrase, grab a dictionary or type it into Google.

  2. Ask yourself this: What is this topic about? Why has it been set? What did WADL think when they were setting it?

    Answering those questions will get you on the right path.

  3. Go with the most straightforward definition you can. 

    Don't narrow the debate too much, or make it into a debate that is heavily weighted to your side. If you make your side a lot easier to 
    prove, you won't show that you're good enough to win.

    E.g. — That we should make university free for students

    1. 'University': Tertiary education completed by high school graduates, that may include institutions like TAFE.
    2. University must cost students something at the moment. There must be a system for charging students which we want to change or support in this debate.
    3. This is about ensuring students don't have to pay anything for their tertiary education, not about making everything including lunches at university free, nor paying whatever it takes for students to attend any university in the world, nor only making university free for poorer students.
Definition: That the Australian Government should pay for the tertiary education of any Australian student who is qualified to enter a course.

What is the context?

Understanding why you're debating a topic helps you define it. It also leads you to the arguments that your side will need to raise.

It is important to consider where and why the debate is taking place. This will provide boundaries for your research and criteria for deciding which points matter, and which do not.

E.g — That we should not cull sharks
- The Western Australian Government has recently enacted legislation that requires sharks found in certain areas to be culled.
- This is policy designed to ensure the safety of people who swim at WA beaches. 
- Many sharks in WA waters are currently considered to be endangered or at-risk.

In this debate, it will be important to argue about whether the benefits to swimmers at WA beaches will outweigh the damage to shark species and marine ecosystems.

Who matters in this debate?

Considering the 'stakeholders', or people who have an interest in the outcome of the debate, will help you find new arguments. Debates are often about public policy, so there are a few stakeholders that tend to come up in debates.

These include:
- The Government
- The general public
- Victims of crime or other acts
- People who commit crimes or other acts
- Disadvantaged people or minorities
- Women
- Homosexuals
- Children or young adults
- The elderly

Obviously, not all of these groups are likely to come up in a single debate. Similarly, stakeholders in debates will never be limited to just people on this list.

The question to ask yourself, is (1) 'who matters?'; or 'who cares?'. Then ask (a) 'why they care?' Finally ask (i) 'what arguments there are for their point of view?'; or 'why we should care about them?'. That will lead you to your case.

E.g. — That we should legalise marijuana

Stakeholders:
(1) Those who use marijuana
(a) Either enjoy their use, or wish for their use not to be a criminal act
(i) People should be free to do whatever they choose to do
(ii) People should not be locked up or fined for an act which is arguably less harmful than smoking tobacco
(2) Those who may be adversely affected by using marijuana
(a) Don't want to be in a position where using marijuana is easier or even encouraged by advertisers
(i) There should be strong deterrents to people exploiting those who can't choose not to harm themselves
(3) Users who engage in the current black market where marijuana is sold: 
(a) Don't want to be placed in danger, or to be exposed to harder drugs
(i) Want a legitimate method to use a substance they will use in either case to minimise harm
(4) The Government
(a) Want to discourage acts that harm society
(i) If marijuana use is harmful to people, it is the role of the Government to act to prevent it
(b) Don't want to spend a huge amount on locking up people who aren't necessarily a danger to society
(i) There may be other, more effective methods to protect society than prison for drug users

Are there any principles behind which we stand?

Debates aren't just about who cares, or a weighing of harms and benefits. Often, society has decided that there is a principled reason why they will or will not accept a policy. It is useful to consider whether there is such a principle that applies to your case. If there is, you can use it to decide on the practical points about harms and benefits of the policy that you wish to raise.

E.g. That we should criminalise cyber bullying

Principle: People should have the right to free speech. There will always be speech that individuals think is useless, or actively harmful. But, we cannot know that that is the case without allowing that speech to be heard and debated in a marketplace of ideas. Further, it is a more effective check on offensive speech to allow others to judge the speaker, and to shun them or to rebut their ideas. Finally, Government interference with speech is likely to chill speech; to prevent legitimate speech at the margins that people are too afraid to engage in because of the danger of crossing the line and becoming a criminal.

Practical harms and benefits

Sometimes we're willing to abandon mere principles if a policy does a lot of good or harm. Often, though, there are competing principles and the actual consequences of the policy will cause us to align with one camp rather than the other. It is very useful to consider what the policy will actually look like in the real world, and what it will do. Then think about why that supports your side.

E.g. That we should ban private schools

Private schools currently have a lot of students. These students are not in the public system, and are indirectly given a relatively smaller amount of Government assistance than public school students. If private schools were banned, there would be an influx of students into public schools that are already overcrowded. This would harm the education of all students.

Bringing it all together

You've got a lot of good ideas. You've got a few sound arguments that you reckon will win you the debate. But you don't know how to make it into a well-structured case. For that, head over to Case Structure and continue developing your debate.