Students voice concerns at GA Town Hall

Holly Stewart

Roughly 40 students attended a Town Hall meeting last Wednesday held by the Students’ Society to discuss a proposed referendum question about reforming the General Assembly.

The proposed motion would replace the GA with an Annual General Meeting and an online voting period for referendum questions. SSMU Council is set to vote February 3 on whether or not to put the question on the Spring referendum ballot.

SSMU President Zach Newburgh, the author of the question, gave notice of the motion at the SSMU Council meeting on January 20. After a number of students contacted him with concerns, he announced that he would hold a Town Hall to solicit further student feedback.

During the two-hour meeting, councillors and students offered various suggestions for improving both the GA itself and the proposed referendum question.

Max Zidel, clubs and services representative, responded to a comment about weak turnout at GAs by saying that a lot of the good things at McGill are done, or at least started, by smaller groups of students and that SSMU should foster this work rather than discourage it.

“I don’t think it should be a problem of who attends and how many,” Zidel said. “If it’s a problem of, ‘We don’t want everyone to vote on behalf of everyone because of that,’ we can reform the legislative aspect of the GA, make it less bureaucratic, etc. But the forum of discussion part could be only 10 people in the room and it would still be more valuable than no one.”

Erin Hale, U3 Philosophy, was concerned that changing to the proposed AGM format would remove any real force and meaning from the GA.

“What separates [an AGM] from a culture club?” she said. “Let’s get together and talk about something. People want to get together to make a decision. You’re cutting the balls of the GA by having these AGMs.”

Others expressed concern about the wording of part 28.3 of the proposed referendum question, which appeared to strictly limit the scope of debate at AGMs. But according to Robert’s Rules, this section would only limit debate for the purpose of voting. Newburgh said he plans to amend this section at the next Council meeting to make the wording more clear.

Myriam Zaidi, SSMU vice-president external, expressed mixed feelings about the event.

“I find it unfortunate that the turnout wasn’t great, that the vast majority of people were either councillors or members of the media,” said Zaidi. “[But as a positive], a lot of arguments that came up that not even executives or councillors thought of, not even those who are for the GA, like the education aspect.”

At the Town Hall, several students suggested that the GA’s attendance problems could be partially blamed on the average student’s insufficient knowledge of the inner workings of the GA. Some suggested that more education on the capabilities and operations of the GA ought to be implemented so that students could feel more comfortable with the process and be more likely to attend the GA and engage in debate.

Newburgh said many of the comments made by members of the audience had already been considered during the writing of referendum question, but that “there were a few new points that were made that are interesting to consider, some of which will be addressed to the form of amendments to the referendum question.”

Any amendments suggested will be presented, discussed, and voted upon at Thursday’s Council meeting.

Clubs and Services representative Maggie Knight noted that although she arrived to the event late, from what she saw, the Town Hall “was successful in being a place where people could share their ideas. Depending on what happens with these results, we might see some frustration or some excitement.”

Looking forward to the next Council meeting, several SSMU councillors and executives appear to have strong thoughts one way or another on the future of the GA and the GA-reform referendum question.

“Personally, ideally it would fail at Council. And if it doesn’t happen then I’d plan on being involved in a No campaign,” said Management representative Eli Freedman. “I was under the impression that we were reforming [the GA] and I had ideas for reforming it and I didn’t even think getting rid of it was an option. Now with the referendum question, that’s the only option.”

Knight said some of the concerns that have been raised could be traced to the complicated wording of the referendum question and that re-wording the question for clarity could alleviate some of the concerns.

“If we could re-write [the question] in a way that’s actually representative of what you could actually do with it, then maybe that would be okay,” Knight said. “But, it doesn’t clearly outline: we’ll have a debate and then we’ll be able to vote on stuff for the next three days. That’s nowhere in there.”

Several councillors have said they plan to bring critical questions and amendments with them to the February 3 Council meeting. However, Newburgh said he will stand strong in his position to defend the main force of the question.

“Any amendment that provides the opportunity for a small segment of the population to vote and excludes all others is unacceptable and against the spirit of the referendum question,” Newburgh said.

Knight, however, said the proposed reforms have led some students to question Newburgh’s leadership.

“We have a large number of councillors who don’t trust the motivations of our president,” Knight said. “Do I have a huge amount of trust for certain people and their motivations right now? No. Am I attempting to work collaboratively? Yes.”

Zaidi responded to concerns that the SSMU executive was divided on the issue.

“We are six people … elected on an individual basis,” she said. “It happens that some issues will divide us and this is one of the issues that does divide us.”

Newburgh explained that the question went through the Council steering committee without any dissent, and that he feels there would have been the “same outcry no matter what kind of process ensued.”

“Ultimately bold steps needed to be taken in order to force people into consultation on this issue,” Newburgh added. “This is an issue about ensuring the democratic character of our society and if we’re going to continue to uphold an undemocratic institution for the sake of students’ apathy, we are failing at our job as responsible representatives and leaders of the society.”

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