Councillors were notified at Thursday’s Students’ Society Council meeting of a proposed referendum question that could abolish SSMU’s General Assembly, the once-a-semester forum for undergraduates to vote on issues of concern to them.
The referendum question, authored by SSMU President Zach Newburgh, and moved by Newburgh, Vice-President Internal Tom Fabian, VP Finance and Operations Nick Drew, and Athletics representative Emilie Leonard, would see the GA replaced with an annual General Meeting at which motions could be debated but not voted upon. Voting on the question would then take place online through the existing referendum system.
According to Newburgh, the proposal would remedy many of the systemic problems in the current GA’s structure.
“A lot of the resolutions that come to bat … usually take the form of joke motions, which makes those who are not currently involved think that the Society is silly,” Newburgh said. “The second piece [of the problem with the GA] is that when there is importance lent to the GA, it’s normally due to highly contentious, politicized motions, whereby individuals, instead of debating, are racing to get the highest number of like-minded individuals to cast their votes and debate at each other rather than with each other.”
Despite arguments that the abolition of the GA would mean the end of direct democracy at SSMU, Newburgh argued that the current format of the GA is inherently undemocratic.
“The GA allows a small segment of the Society that is unelected and exclusive, due to space and time constraints, to circumvent democracy entirely,” he said. “In replacing the GA with a forum for debate and in keeping the referendum process alive, in fact we are making the Society all the more democratic.”
In order for the question to be placed on the spring referendum ballot, the motion must be passed by Council at their next meeting, on February 3.
Some councillors, however, have argued that there was not enough student consultation in the drafting of the motion. Maggie Knight, Clubs and Services representative, said Newburgh’s attempt to recruit students to sit on a GA review committee, to which only one student applied, was not sufficient.
“The GA is significantly flawed,” Knight said. “If the suggested change is the best thing we can come up with, then sure, we should put that to referendum. But my feeling is very much that we have not done an exhaustive search for better solutions.”
Management representative Eli Freedman agreed.
“[Newburgh] sent out an email, and no one applied to be on the committee. I don’t really think that’s adequate,” he said. “I’m sure if he had asked people in person they would have been willing to at least go to some sort of brainstorming night or participate in some sort of problem solving exercise.”
Newburgh, however, argued that he had offered student voices sufficient opportunity to speak.
“I hope that individuals recognize there was an opportunity for consultation, that they understand the word in the first place, and that it’s not tantamount to agreement,” he said. “Those who have thus far made calls for increased consultation and complained about the process are those individuals who either a) benefit from the status quo, or b) disagree with the motion but can’t substantiate their disagreement.”
In an effort to further include students, Knight, Freedman, and Arts Senator Amara Possian created a Facebook event encouraging members to submit their own suggestions for GA reform. In addition, Newburgh is hosting a Town Hall meeting with the same aim on Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the Lev Bukhman room.
“I hope in the next week and a half we can come up with a structure that would be much better, which we can then offer as an amendment and hopefully come to agreement on what the best different option would be,” Knight said.
Despite these disagreements, Knight emphasized that this is not fundamentally a confrontation between members of the SSMU executive and certain councillors.
“That’s why we’re there as councillors: to try to hold the execs to account, and to try to make sure that they’re consulting with students as much as possible,” she said. “I’m really happy we now have a Town Hall and I hope that everybody comes out to that and offers constructive feedback.”
The referendum question also includes a provision whereby any member of the society who collects 50 signatures can submit a resolution to SSMU Council. According to Newburgh, this will give the average student, “the opportunity to engage with an easier degree with the legislative process.”
Should Council decide to reject the referendum question, Newburgh would have the option of putting it on the ballot through the student-initiated referendum process—something former president Ivan Neilson did last year with a question regarding SSMU’s committee structure.
“We don’t have a lot of time, but I’m confident we’ll either come up some sort of solution that is mutually agreeable or we’ll just vote down the resolution, which in my opinion is the most ideal solution,” Freedman said.
“If Council chooses to get hung up in process, rather than in debating the merits of the question, I would be open to considering a student-initiated referendum question,” Newburgh said.