Steps towards a functional General Assembly

a/Opinion by

Last Monday Oct. 15 marked the SSMU’s fall General Assembly (GA). In spite of recent reforms intended to make the assembly more appealing and accessible to general membership, it was only able to pass two motions before losing quorum. The centerpiece of these reforms,  passed by referendum last semester, mandates that any motion passed by the assembly must now also be put to an online vote for ratification. Other changes include an enhanced webcast, as well as workshops held beforehand to explain the best practices for debating and how the GA operates.

The implementation of an online vote is a positive preliminary step towards making the GA more democratic and giving it a stronger sense of legitimacy. Ideally, its goal of involving a broader range of participants could also heighten awareness and interest in the assembly. However, last week’s assembly—especially the loss of quorum—was a stark reminder that this will not necessarily be the case. The next test of the reforms will be the online ratification process. The two motions must pass with a quorum of 10 per cent of SSMU’s membership of over 20,000 students. It’s hard to say whether or not the online vote will reach quorum. Recent SSMU winter elections have drawn 25 per cent voter turnout, and it seems unlikely that less controversial issues would raise the same levels of interest. But if membership does fail to bring in the vote, it will raise a significant problem for SSMU beyond underrepresentation.

Democratic values are a crucial aspect of any governing body’s legitimacy, but they must be balanced with functional capacity. If it is not being actively put to use, democracy is useless. If the online vote cannot reach quorum, it will act as an effective blockade rather than a democratic check. In other words, it will prevent a small number of students from passing motions on behalf of the greater society. Even if the ratification does reach quorum, it cannot necessarily represent the will of the student body when motions were voted on consultatively as they were on Monday. While increasing participation and voter turnout is undeniably important, SSMU must find an ongoing way for the General Assembly to have some sort of voice in spite of the problems it currently faces.

There are a number of solutions for SSMU. One of these, already being pursued by this year’s executive, is the use of technological resources and social media as a tool to introduce newcomers to the process and give them a feel for the assembly. In addition to observing the proceedings, students could also interact with the GA and engage in the debate remotely—even if their input did not come in the form of a formal vote.

Alternately, reform could be more structural. One option is to institute a sliding relative quorum between the assembly and the online vote. The minimum quorum for the GA should be reduced, but if fewer people showed up for the assembly, more votes would be required to ratify those same motions online, and vice versa. This prevents a fractional minority from being able to make a binding resolution on the majority unchecked, but also gives motions a higher likelihood of actually making it past the assembly.

Another option is for motions to be categorized based on their potential impact and level of controversy. Different categorizations would require specific quorum levels to move past the GA. The categorization itself could prove to be a controversial process, but certainly not insurmountably so.

While the above  would work towards keeping the SSMU General Assembly responsive and functional in spite of its problems, the proposals can really only treat symptoms. The real issue here is McGill’s culture of inaction and stagnancy when it comes to student politics. It’s an environment where information on elections and referenda get lost in a flood of listservs—I’ve received 16 last week—and where a 20 per cent election turnout is considered a success. Students fail to recognize, or are unaware of, the successes and challenges facing their governing bodies. This is a complex problem, and addressing it will require much more than the restructuring of a ratification system. Though there is no easy solution, it all begins with better communication to foster student awareness of what is being discussed, what is at stake, and why it matters.