Commentary  Eradication is not reform

One day after SSMU President Zach Newburgh served a notice of motion to abolish the General Assembly (GA), student uproar led him to re-title the motion and announce a town hall meeting to address concerns. The sudden rhetorical change doesn’t hide the fact, however, that should this motion pass, the GA – the only forum for direct student consultation, debate, and reform – would cease to exist.

The motion seeks to eradicate the General Assembly in all forms and replace it with an “Annual General Meeting.” The Annual General Meeting (AGM) would take place twice a year and present the state of SSMU, ratify nominations to the SSMU Society’s Board of Directors, review audited financial statements, and nominate a financial auditor. Newburgh has also claimed that motions and referendum questions can be debated at the AGM and submitted to Council, but this removes any legislative autonomy students have by subjecting them to Council’s amendments and final approval. This, combined with the new concept of “private members’ bills,” (which are introduced by students to Council and are subject to the steering committee and Council debate) only further concentrates power in the hands of SSMU executives and councillors.

Given that the SSMU Constitution already requires the four aforementioned purposes of the AGM to be included in a GA agenda, the only purpose the motion appears to serve is to eliminate this forum for direct democracy. While the GA has yet to be perfected, its proposed replacement and what remains – including the online referendum process – are disembodied and sterile alternatives. While referendums can alter the policy of the student union, wording in referenda cannot be changed, and the power of binding face-to-face political debate on a campus where students are often highly isolated cannot be reproduced by voting alone in front of a computer.

While the GA is flawed, it must be improved, and with that in mind we would like to propose three simple solutions to some commonly referenced problems.

Complaint 1: Not enough people attend GAs.
Promote the GA (more). Outside of the occasional poster and advertisement in the campus media, SSMU has not capitalized on its vast financial resources to inform students of the one event where they can actually change SSMU policy. SSMU only allocated $6,000 for the GA this year – $300 less than last academic year – despite the fact that it began this year with a much increased surplus of nearly $600,000. Pointing to a general neglect of the GA, of the $6,300 budgeted last school year, only $4,922 was spent. Faced with an enormous surplus and – as a non-profit organization – required not to make a profit, student fees have been poured instead into new events like Homekoming, and proposed events like a three-day SSMUfest music festival. This money would be much better spent on instructive, proactive, and transparent advertising, and outreach to make the GA and all of its inner workings more accessible.

Complaint 2: Not enough space.
Again, SSMU has money to burn, and GA’s don’t have to be limited to the Shatner ballroom, cafeteria, or outside. Possible campus locations include Leacock 132, McConnell Arena, and the Tomlinson Field House. If security presents an issue in dealing with the admin on non-student space, they could even rent out a downtown hotel ballroom for an afternoon.

Complaint 3: The GA has been too political in recent years.
Unions are by nature political and speak out on a variety domestic and international political issues – so ours should too. Lack of GA turnout has been attributed to apathy and an aversion to politics, but students’ political beliefs have instead been shackled by a lack of information and accessibility on how to involve themselves in SSMU policy. We shouldn’t further inhibit students’ desire to engage in campus politics, but instead encourage involvement in campus debate.

Most of the complaints people have about the GA are structural, and should be addressed before considering abolishing it entirely. Others have to do with uninformed students. SSMU executives need to make a strong commitment to outreach and education about the GA, and we as students share an equal responsibility to be informed in order to equip assembly with the power of reform that a twenty-thousand-strong student body can exercise. It is equally important to ensure that a large enough proportion of those twenty thousand students come to make their voices heard, in order to address complaints that GAs aren’t an accurate sample of students.

We urge every student to get involved in the policies of their student union. At SSMU Council this Thursday, councillors will debate whether to abolish the GA. Go to Council, and lobby your representatives. We need to preserve the GA long enough to actually reform it.