By Keean Bexte, October 6, 2015 —
The Students’ Union is a machine where dissent is viewed more like a wrench in the engine instead of oil. This is, for obvious reasons, a problem that threatens the accountability of our student democracy.
Generally speaking, Students’ Legislative Council (SLC) passes more than 80 resolutions annually. Last year, SLC voted on 89 resolutions, 93 per cent of which passed with complete support of the council. Ultimately, 98.8 per cent of the resolutions last year passed. The year before that, 100 per cent of the resolutions passed.
If you go through the published minutes on the SU website, you’ll find these numbers are fairly consistent through the years. And if you compare this to other student institutions, you’ll find it isn’t that unorthodox. In fact, having just one resolution fail makes our SU stick out like a sore thumb.
To be fair, some of these votes are about pretty irrelevant things when it comes to students’ day-to-day lives, and they likely deserve to be unanimously voted through. There are resolutions about whether SLC should recognize that they meet on Treaty 7 land, or who should arbitrate the next SU General Election. So let’s not talk about those. Instead, let’s talk about the votes that actually have an impact on students — the ones that impact your wallets.
The SU passes a budget each year that dictates the amount of money going to student services and SU-operated businesses. It relies on how much students fork over in fees, which is usually around 1.6 million per year. Throughout the nine different SLCs the SU has online minutes for, a whopping zero per cent of the budgets have had a member vote against them. Not a single penny of a number north of $150 million has been meaningfully contested by your elected officials.
There are a few root causes to this issue that I have noticed both as an outsider and from my time as a member of SLC. The first is that the full-time executives usually act as a voting bloc, as the SU president and the four vice-presidents have often come to a consensus on any issue long before SLC begins. It’s very hard for a faculty representative to disagree with five full-time student leaders who have been prepped for the meeting by paid staff.
Compounding this, dissent among faculty reps is viewed inappropriately. The dynamic the president and vice-presidents have with faculty reps is administrative at best and disdainful at worst. In my experience, questions from the faculty reps are responded to with an explanation as to why they are wrong, rather than why their concerns are valid.
This causes problems, especially since the first thing elected officials vote on when they get into office is the most important — the budget. Faculty reps at the beginning of their term — and executives, for that matter — can be timid. They may not yet have the legislative skills to amend or vote against something. Although it would be inconvenient, something needs to change to give faculty reps hands-on legislative experience prior to signing off on the budget.
The yearly council retreat doesn’t properly prepare student representatives either. Not only is the SU’s largest training session two months after they pass their $19-million budget, but the content of the weekend retreat has an atmosphere more like a fraternity initiation than a council training sessions — which likely discourages real dissent among council members.
This year, only three questions were asked when the budget was rubber stamped — one a clarification of wording, one about an arbitrary $2000 and another by a member of the audience. The budget, being the only resolution that the staff of the SU really need students for, has not been challenged once in recent memory. Which begs the question — why do we even spend $21,000 a year on elections?
There is, however, hope. A vote in SLC failed recently, precisely because a member spoke their mind. Vice-president student life Kirsty McGowan took a stand against a funding increase for a proposed flu clinic — contrary to her fellow executives. Faculty reps weren’t just handed a rubber stamp. For the first time in a while, they had a clear choice. We may finally be seeing some progress, but we’ll have to wait and see if this is only an anomaly.
If the SU wants to be a serious tool for student accountability and democracy, there needs to be more dissent. Especially when there is student money on the line.
Keean Bexte is a third-year natural sciences student. He writes a monthly column about Students’ Union politics called Committee of the Whole.