EDITORIAL: Our assemblies are dysfunctional

Editorial/Opinion by

The Tribune found itself in a difficult position last year when deciding whether or not to support the constitutional amendment on general assemblies. Essentially, we supported the idea of having regular assemblies but believed it would be damaging, democratically speaking, to lower the quorum from 200 to 100 students. Unfortunately, the ballot combined both questions and we decided that it was more important to have broad representation than it was to have regular assemblies. The amendment was passed last spring, meaning that twice a year, 100 students can get together and make policy for the Students’ Society.

On Thursday we were reminded of why lowering quorum was a bad idea after several resolutions brought forward by fringe groups were passed with fewer than 200 students present-less than one per cent of McGill’s 22,700 undergraduate students.

But that isn’t the only problem with general assemblies. In their current form, they are severely dysfunctional and they need to be improved to better represent the will of the student body. The motions debated at the GA were too broad in scope and poorly publicized. For example, although the constitutional amendment that mandates the GA calls for the agenda to be publicized in the campus press, including the Tribune, this was not done.

The idea of a General Assembly is a good one. Students should be able to discuss, debate and pass general SSMU policy. However, it is not very meaningful to have a debate if everyone already has their mind made up before the event happens. Effectively what happened on Thursday was that motions were introduced, some people spoke into microphones and nobody listened.

The Midnight Kitchen brought a motion that claimed an agreement was in place between SSMU and the group to give it property rights to the third-floor kitchen. This was presented in the motion as fact, however, the claim was disputed. “There was no formal or informal agreement between SSMU and Midnight Kitchen,” said former SSMU President Martin Doe during the Assembly, “and I should know because I was the President the year the Shatner building renovations referendum took place.” Doe therefore proposed that the Midnight Kitchen issue be diverted to a committee.

SSMU executives would have assembled a group of elected councilors and other students and sat down to work the issue out. Unfortunately, those at Thursday’s GA chose to ignore the person who had the most direct experience with the issue and voted down the proposal, mainly because everyone’s minds were made up before the event was held.

Instead of a GA, what we have now is a mobilization contest. It’s a race between those who support the proposals and those who don’t, where those who have proposed the motions have a much greater incentive to get them passed. It’s not much of a contest. This adversarial element, which was clear as day on Thursday, hurts the democratic process.

But there is another problem with the GA-the motions were far too broad. The Grassroots Association for Student Power proposed two of the motions that were debated. Their proposals, while well-intentioned, encompassed far too much to ever be reasonably implemented. Instead of being a general framework within which SSMU could work, the resolutions were more like omnibus bills containing many different elements.

For example, it made sense for GRASPé to propose a resolution condemning corporations on campus, but the actual resolution had several aspects to it, including a demand that McGill hold a student referendum each time a major decision is made concerning corporate financing.

Students were persuaded to say “boo corporations,” which is something many people could get on board with, but by doing so were also voting for SSMU to press the McGill administration to consult students each and every time an investment decision is made. The resolution called for a number of things and it’s easy to conclude that many students were voting on the underlying idea of the motion, rather than the complex plans that the motion set out.

Thursday’s motions were either too broad, factually incorrect or extremely slanted. There should be some sort of body of rules to which a motion must comply with.

Until the general assemblies are shaped into a forum where a dialogue can take place and a significant number of undecided students choose to show up, it will remain an illegitimate policy arena. In its current incarnation, hundreds of moderate students will have to show up at these general assemblies just to make sure their student union isn’t hijacked.

Lowering the quorum to 100 allows exceedingly small yet vocal minorities to hijack the Students’ Society business.

The resolutions on the whole were generally unclear and not at all well thought out. We shouldn’t be enforcing blind policy at the GA and there should be some sort of mechanism that ensures foolish motions are ameliorated before they are put to a vote.