Of all the inane contradictions that define student culture at McGill, perhaps my favourite is the stark dichotomy of fiercely motivated political activism and exasperated apathy. At a school where student politics are more cutthroat than much of what plays out on the national stage, seemingly inconsequential actions or opinions can lead to controversy almost unparalleled at other comparable institutions of higher learning.
As someone who has built a reputation on exposing the sheer absurdity that defines political discourse at our university, I can tell you that we are truly the punch line of our own jokes. For every drastic action, there is an equally ridiculous reaction. It is a spiral that works as a centrifuge to force students to extremes of an artificially contentious spectrum, where the most dedicated stake out diametrically opposed positions and the rest feel alienated by a system that over-politicizes the day to day business of their undergraduate education. With such a toxic environment pervading student government, a structure meant to represent the entirety of the student body, decisions are left to those with the fortitude to withstand the nauseating process of democracy. In short, our university government is dictated not by ideology, but attendance.
Given such a grossly unrepresentative and exclusive arrangement, you can imagine my indignation when I received the latest email from Elections AUS. What was billed as a routine and benign Fall Referendum turned out to be little more than a slate of questions designed to radically alter the governing structure of McGill’s largest faculty. Among the proposed changes being considered in this referendum (read: impromptu constitutional convention) would allow the AUS President to circumvent a by-election and appoint an interim replacement without the consent of the Arts Faculty electorate, and would make it easier for politically savvy and motivated students to amend the constitution by abandoning the traditional two-thirds majority in favour of a 50 per cent plus one model, depleting the democratic legitimacy of a super majority.
Now here’s the kicker: in an election dominated by amendments designed to fundamentally curtail the power of elected senators and representatives in favour of the executive, the inherent apathy and disengagement which characterize the voting public at McGill means that AUS President Devon LaBuik’s power play went almost entirely unnoticed. A man who was elected on a Warren G. Harding-esque platform emphasizing moderation and centrist competence, LaBuik knows that student indifference is an enormous asset when making contentious decisions (see: Jobbook). Having moved all of the proposed amendments to the AUS Constitution from which he stands to benefit, President LaBuik is undoubtedly banking on low turnout and a highly mobilized contingent of ideologically sympathetic cohorts to expand his political power and create a more exclusive and, in his view, streamlined environment in which he can unilaterally dictate policy.
I fully appreciate the irony of someone who mocks student government taking such a hardline stance on a political issue which would normally serve as little more than comedic fodder. But in an age of dire call and response politics, such political maneuvering has led to a situation where small but committed factions create increasingly extreme policies that guide a largely centrist majority. While universities must never cease to be fora for political discussion, if we wish to move forward with a sense of not only legitimacy but efficiency, we must abandon dirty politics and create a system that seeks not to inspire the far ends of the spectrum, but which aims to engage the students it left behind.
Daniel Braden is a Michelle Obama devotee and sometimes comedian through his blog McGill Memes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.