A controversial motion to hold a referendum abolishing the biannual General Assembly (GA) and replace it with an Annual General Meeting (AGM) will be debated tonight at SSMU Council.
The AGM, unlike the GA, is a consultative forum and would not provide an opportunity for students to vote. The motion, authored by SSMU President Zach Newburgh and moved by VP Finance and Operations Nick Drew, VP Internal Tom Fabian, and Athletics councillor Emilie Leonard, has caused a visible split among the SSMU executives. The process by which the motion was brought forth to councillors is also being criticized. Leonard did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.
Abolishing the GA
Members of both the SSMU executive and council are upset by the proposal to abolish the GA without first exploring a means of reform.
VP Clubs and Services Anushay Khan highlighted the benefits of the GA. “I feel that a lot of really great things have come out of the GA,” she said, citing SSMU policies regarding corporate influences, opt-outs, and room bookings. “The GA is a great forum to really have students come out and have their concerns be heard.”
VP External Myriam Zaidi also came out in favour of preserving the GA. “I think we should empower SSMU members in directing their student society,” she said.
“The fact that for decades students have come together and made important decisions as a whole, as opposed to 35 councillors, I think [that is] why a GA is critical to a healthy democracy that is representative of students,” Management councillor Eli Freedman said in defence of the GA. “The fact that we’re considering giving that up is crazy. I think that we haven’t looked at workable ways of reforming it.”
Newburgh has a different view on the GA, insisting on the necessity for change. “The debate ultimately comes down to whether the SSMU is willing to uphold an undemocratic General Assembly that limits voting to those who do not have class, work, and are among the first few to attend – or whether voting should be open to the entire student body.”
Fabian pointed out other flaws of the GA. “It’s just that people come out to vote on their issue, and they bounce. They don’t really care about the well-being of everything, and for that reason, a lot of people bring in some pretty stupid motions,” he said.
“I’m very open to change,” said Drew, clarifying his reasoning for adding his name to the motion. “We’re trying to find innovative ways to make sure that all voices are being heard, and not just the loudest or the ones with the biggest mob.”
He spoke to the inaccessibility of the GA’s structure. “It’s very complicated, unless you’re in student politics, to understand the process which the GA uses,” he said, referring in particular to Robert’s Rules of Order that structure GA debates.
Despite his protestations regarding the motion’s presentation during the last Council meeting, VP University Affairs Joshua Abaki displayed a more neutral stance when discussing the motion’s content.
“It is okay for there to be a difference of opinions, both within Council and the executive, and I think enough people have taken the time to make their views known about the GA,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.
Lack of Consultation
In addition to clear divisions of opinion over the future of the GA, some executives and councillors were vocal about their disappointment regarding the amount of consultation leading up to the motion’s presentation at Council.
Freedman voiced his concerns about the steps Newburgh took in soliciting feedback from his peers prior to submitting the motion.
“The process [by] which this has come into light corrupts the political system… Zach needs to understand that the executive is non-hierarchical. You don’t have a president above the rest of [the executives] and have them respond to his actions, and he creates the vision for the society, because that’s false,” Freedman said. “[Newburgh] has made it clear that his preferences are not to consult with students – not to reform the GA, but to abolish it,” he added.
Fabian and Drew both defended the way in which the motion was introduced to Council.
“I think too many people worry about consultation and process,” said Fabian. “The GA is in Zach’s portfolio; it is underneath him. All of us executives, we don’t consult each other on every single topic.”
Drew echoed his statements, pointing out that, “Executives have their own working schedules…you can’t consult everybody about everything. [Newburgh] could have been sneaky and pushed this through student-initiated referendum, and not have any consultation.”
Zaidi, however, disagreed. “Three out the six executives were never aware that this motion was being created, or was even being brought forward, even though we see each other every day,” she said. She went on to emphasize the divisive nature of the issue, stating, “The people that brought this motion forward knew that the GA was an issue that the executive had different views on.”
After considerable criticism over the seemingly minimal amount of communication between councillors and executive, Newburgh held a consultative town hall last week, in hopes of seeking student feedback.
Arts Senator Tyler Lawson referred to the meeting as “a great step forward in trying to ameliorate the circumstances.”
However, Councillor Maggie Knight claimed that the organization of the effort felt a bit “too little, too late.” She did concede, however, that the meeting prompted discussion that gave rise to new ideas.
Newburgh dismissed concerns that promotion for the Winter GA has not been as visible as in previous years. “No matter how well the General Assembly is advertised, individuals will only attend if they are interested in the motions,” he said.
Advertising for the GA, which is set to take place February 10, has been limited to online promotion and ads in campus publications. Council decided against printing handbills to publicize the event, due to environmental concerns.
Confusion has arisen among SSMU councillors and executives, however, over the use of posters in advertising the GA. Despite confirmation from Dallas Bentley, SSMU’s Communications and Publications Manager, that posters are not currently being printed due to environmental concerns, Drew was under the impression that there would be no deviation from the usual practice of postering. “We should be postering around the faculties…and [posters] should have all the listings of the motions coming forth,” Drew said. “We’re planning to do that, so I don’t see any change in that.”
Knight and Lawson expressed confusion at the lack of postering on campus. “I suggested that we should use posters, [but] I don’t think that was taken up,” Knight said. Lawson also noted “posters are pretty much a staple of promotion in all aspects of SSMU, and should have been utilized.”
“You can question the amount of advertising,” Abaki remarked. “Perhaps we can agree that it’s been half-hearted.”
Khan and Zaidi advocated for a more interactive form of advertising, aiming to inform students about the value and technicalities of the GA. “I feel like it’s about educating students about the importance of the GA, before talking about the mechanism as a whole, because if people don’t know the value of it, then obviously you’re not going to value it,” Khan said.
Zaidi added that understanding the process of writing motions is crucial to the success of the GA. “We could’ve definitely done more in terms of the motion writing promotion, and I believe that the quality of a GA really depends on the motions that are submitted.” She went on to criticize confusion surrounding the deadline for the submission of motions for the GA.
Khan addressed the current divide among the executive as inevitable. “We run as individuals, and at some point in time, we will be divided on some issue. And this is that issue.”