Commentary | Direct democracy needs direct involvement

There’s been a lot of admirable student mobilization on campus this semester, but no one should count students’ performance at the SSMU General Assembly (GA) as part of this. The worthy institution was brought low last week by poor student turnout, a wrong-headed motion regarding gender parity, and tepid leadership from our student government – all of which should serve to remind us that we need to work hard to maintain direct democracy if we want it to work well.

The University is like a mini-state, with SSMU as level of government – one which affects students on an everyday basis, perhaps more than the federal or provincial governments. The GA is the most direct means by which students can influence that government. Institutionally, it has as nearly much power as Council – but without the added hurdle of having to get Council members to pass initiatives. Any student can bring a motion to the GA.

Not everyone agrees that this particular form of direct democracy is worth preserving on campus. Every year, the Tribune writes an editorial maligning the GA as inefficient and unserious, and calling for its abolition. This year the paper called it “a joke – a long and painful joke.”

The real joke at the GA this year was the deliberate misuse of the language of equity to discredit the institution as a whole. Specifically egregious were two motions, one calling for the elimination of a rule calling for alternation between male and non-male speakers from the GA and Council meetings, the other calling for a “stripper pole” to be installed in Gerts. The latter was ruled out of motion and not discussed at the GA.

The authors of the motion regarding gender parity argued in the whereas clauses that since female students outnumber males at McGill, this policy has no reason to exist. The Tribune, in the same breath as the call for the GA’s abolition, agreed, claiming that there is “no evidence of [gender disparity] at McGill.”

The whereas clauses go on to claim that the gender parity rule is “discriminatory” and “forces individuals to identify with [a] gender.” In the motion regarding the stripper pole, one whereas clause observed that “athletic options for women on campus are limited and often male-dominated,” thereby using similarly deceptive tactics. Both of the examples of language employed by the authors of the respective motions make a mockery of legitimate efforts on campus to actually institute progressive equity policies.

The motion’s authors argue that people are no longer discriminated against on the basis of gender in McGill politics, and that the GA’s gender parity policy was therefore unnecessary. Women and trans people do not have an equal place, or an equal voice, anywhere in our society, the GA included. The gender parity policy, in some small measure, helped to combat this injustice. It’s a shame this tool in that fight has been taken away.

Friday’s GA wrestled with the measly 100-person standard for quorum at several points during the night. That’s a poor showing from McGill undergrads: we have proved ourselves more engaged and dedicated than that this year. SSMU councillors did not do better: only a handful of the 35 people elected by students to represent them and deal with, among other things, a budget of over $7 million, bothered to show up.

As witnessed by the Arch Café rallies, politics is in the air at McGill. Let’s take that activist spirit to the GA this February, and make the Assembly all that it can be.


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