If there’s one thing the Students’ Society’s biannual General Assembly does a good job of, it’s helping to discredit – on both an intellectual and a practical level – direct democracy, or at least the twisted, substandard version we will once again be exposed to tomorrow afternoon.
Every year, twice a year, a GA rolls around, and usually one of two things happens. Either a series of “unexciting” motions – often related to internal SSMU issues – fail to attract quorum, or one or two controversial motions – usually dealing with external issues – attract partisans from two sides of an issue, and the GA descends into chaos (see: Winter 2009). Nothing productive happens in either case.
At SSMU’s Winter 2010 GA, students will again be asked to vote on a number of divisive, pointless, and/or poorly-written motions, along with a couple of worthwhile proposals that can only hope for a quorum-level vote by piggybacking on the others.
Chief among the motions that should never have seen the light of day is one that seeks to ban “discriminatory” groups from SSMU – specifically pro-life clubs. This reaction to the Choose Life scandal serves only to misrepresent the sincere – and legitimate – frustration felt by much of the student body following the “Echoes of the Holocaust” event, by going much too far in the other direction. Sadly, it seems the irony of imposing a blanket ban on an ethical and political position under the guise of protecting the (apparently helpless) student body from discrimination is lost on the authors of this motion. Indeed, an affirmative vote tomorrow on the “Discriminatory Groups” motion would see a new clause preventing SSMU from granting club status to any group “whose goals and methods compromise the safety and health of any person or engage in acts of discrimination such as but not limited to pro-life groups” inserted directly after an existing clause stating that “no student organization should have the effect of limiting dialogue on these legitimate topics provided that such discussion is conducted in a respectful and non-coercive manner.”
In the words of John Stuart Mill, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
A second GA motion that has generated a great deal of controversy is the “Motion re: the Defense of Human Rights, Social Justice, and Environmental Protection,” which would reaffirm SSMU’s commitment to these ideals, and establish a Corporate Social Responsibility Committee or expand the Financial Ethics Review Committee, to act as an advisory board that would vet companies “with which McGill University conducts business.” While no one could possibly oppose commitment to these ideals, this motion is problematic in a couple of ways. First, the motion would “reaffirm” commitment to something that needs no reaffirmation, as SSMU is already mandated to demonstrate leadership in matters of human rights, social justice, and environmental protection. Additionally, the proposal that a SSMU committee act as an ethical advisory body to the McGill administration is so unrealistic as to be laughable. The likelihood of McGill accepting either FERC or CSR as such a body is very low. In fact, McGill has a body that is supposed to review community-initiated complaints about investments – the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility. And so, we’re left wondering just what the purpose of this motion is exactly, as it will not lead to any substantive changes.
Instead, the motion has sparked a controversy because it singles out, in two lengthy whereas clauses, organizations that profit from the allegedly illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. Some see this is as another “Israel motion,” in the spirit of the 2009 Gaza motion.
Clearly, the Israel-Palestine conflict is important to students, and discussion and debate on the subject is both necessary and healthy. Unfortunately, judging by the quality of debate we’ve seen at the GA in the past, this is not the place to have it. As debate is likely to devolve into a yelling match again, it’s probably best to have this discussion in another venue, where a slightly higher standard of intellectual discourse can be guaranteed.
Motions such as these help highlight why we believe the GA is a fundamentally broken institution, based on a well-meaning, but thoroughly failed, attempt to increase the democratic character of the Society.
The “direct democracy” we see on display at GAs is of the least representative type possible. Self-selected minorities seize the opportunity to dictate SSMU policy, or to put forward symbolic motions on external issues that serve only to divide the Society without achieving anything.
And so, as we’ve said before, the best thing to do at this point is to abolish the GA. It’s become more damaging than productive, and is failing to serve its purpose.
If SSMU will not get rid of the GA, perhaps another series of reforms will produce some constructive change. The many (failed) attempts at reform over the past few years have shown that this is no easy task, and suggest that not only is there no easy fix to the problem, but that the problem is the institution itself.
Nonetheless, reform may still be able to address some of the GA’s flaws. A set of reforms put forward by SSMU President Ivan Neilson, which will be put to students in the winter referendum, would amend the constitution to make it harder to set policy on issues external to the Society at GAs. While this is not, and is not meant as, a radical overhaul, it might help send the message that GAs are not the place for debating divisive external issues. Yet, even so, the only solution that would truly solve this problem is getting rid of the GA, once and for all.