Bringing the issues back to student politics

a/Editorial by

According to Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand, municipal voters show far more interest in local issues—such as bike lanes and urban farming plans—than in selecting their representatives in local government. A recent proposal put forward by Rotrand would follow this logic, and seek to increase voter turnout by putting referendum questions on municipal election ballots. A look at the landscape of McGill’s student politics shows the opposite problem; voter turnout is markedly lower on Fall referendum ballots—which do not include student elections—than for their Winter counterparts. This issue that our campus political system faces derives from the nature of student government and a culture that has emerged of putting personality before substance.

A major obstacle that both our student electoral and referendum system face seems to be inherent to the particular nature of student politics, and will not be resolved by means such as electoral reform. Due to the limited period of time that we spend at McGill, students have much less invested in the political process than they might otherwise. While a Montrealer can be highly motivated to go out and vote for a long-term environmental initiative, students of McGill often have less than four years remaining before they are no longer influenced by what occurs on their campus.

[pullquote]There is no incentive for candidates to differentiate themselves from opponents on the actual issues—nor is it often clear what these issues even are.”[/pullquote]

A similar mindset can be seen in our student representatives once they are elected. The transience of a one-year term leaves little room for a focus on specific initiatives and substantive projects. Seeing this to be the case year after year, students lose faith in the potential outcomes of student politics. What this means for elections is that there seems to be less at stake, and interest predictably dwindles.

While these are problems that stem from the nature of our system, they also have a grounding in the established political culture, and now seem to be accepted as the norm. Student candidates regularly run on platforms of vague ideals, neglecting to focus on specific goals or tangible deliverables. Rather than outlining what can be done and what they hope to accomplish during their time in office, candidates’ election campaigns revolve around notions such as ‘openness’ and ‘accountability.’ While these are noble concepts, they lose value when everybody is espousing them, and there is no incentive for candidates to differentiate themselves from opponents on the actual issues—nor is it often clear what these issues even are. When such differentiation is not made, elections ultimately boil down to a popularity contest.

As a result, we have seen a marked lack of progress once our representatives do take office. Our elected leaders appear tentative to undertake larger projects and follow them through, satisfying themselves with a focus on regular day-to-day business. All of the energy and enthusiasm that is put into promoting the Winter elections disappears by the time the Fall referenda roll around. Students, having elected their representatives, don’t feel any particular connection to their student government or its operations, and disengage.

However, these issues of electoral participation, representatives’ motivation to effect change, and student engagement in the process during the year are all correlated. There are a number of ways to address them. At Queen’s University, teams of executives seeking different positions run as a slate, identifying common ideals and goals upon which to construct their campaign; once the candidates are forced to think about these matters, so will the students electing them. There are other advantages that accompany this: running as a team means that the group of people going into office together know each other, are well-suited to work as a team, and share a common agenda. They will be more motivated and equipped to enact their vision. There are downsides to this approach, however, as it leaves no room for a multiplicity of perspectives nor beliefs to be represented at once.

While this approach may not be the right one for McGill, we need an increased focus on policy in our upcoming elections. Though change could be brought about through reform, our leaders and candidates ultimately need to buy into it, and be the ones to set the precedent. This Winter, as potential candidates for the upcoming SSMU elections consider tossing in their hats, we urge them to have a vision. The popularity contest aspect of the elections may be inevitable, but if they want to have an impact, they must present clear policies, implementation plans, and priorities. It is up to them to decide what kind of McGill they want to see, and work to help get us there. With this vision, and a clear set of goals, our representatives will be well equipped to leave behind a tangible legacy at McGill.