It’s that time of year again: Your friends from rez and frosh are inviting you to Facebook events and announcing their candidacy for various Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) positions. But, despite their well-lit headshots and carefully-worded bios and platforms, voter turnout in recent SSMU elections suggests that most students will not bother to vote: In 2017, voter turnout was slightly over 21 per cent. Low voter participation illustrates the extent of students’ apathy toward SSMU. This recurring pattern of voter indifference stems from a fundamental fact of democratic systems: If the government seems broken, then no one will bother participating in it.
Political scientists use the term “political efficacy” to explain a government’s ability to convince its electorate that participating in the democratic process is worth their time. In a democratic system, political efficacy involves voters believing in two things: That the government is capable of governing, and that their ballot has an impact. If voters don’t believe that the government is functioning properly, or if they don’t think that their vote will influence the outcome, many voters simply won’t bother casting their ballot.
SSMU’s lack of political efficacy is why most people won’t care about the elections: A large majority of the undergraduate population is unconvinced that their choice will contribute to making SSMU better. Many people treat SSMU as nothing more than a source of memes; Reddit threads are devoted to tearing apart the Society for its struggle to even find candidates willing to run. Student politics consistently drum up drama, but McGill students seem to take pride in their government’s bad press.
It’s hard to blame students for thinking this way. SSMU has a history of repeatedly screwing up, and these scandals consistently make it to the front pages of every McGill student newspaper. Consider how the Society handled its building closure. In October 2017, SSMU publicly revealed to students that the University Centre, home to over 50 clubs and services, will close down from March to December 2018. SSMU decided that the best way to announce the building closure was to post a Facebook event inviting people to an information session about it. This was widely criticised, with many groups concerned that SSMU’s handling of the closure could force them to shut down.
While it is possible to find humour in such slip-ups, they ultimately desensitize students from caring about SSMU. And when an electorate is disinterested in their political system, it can no longer hold its government accountable.
Meanwhile, SSMU representatives continue to get away with rampant unprofessionalism. In November 2017, this prompted former vice-president finance Arisha Khan to resign. Her account revealed a Society that has become completely polarized by the selfish attitudes of its elected representatives; SSMU’s current climate allows a small political elite to pad their resumes with illustrious titles and positions, while neglecting to listen to student voices.
SSMU’s frequent exhibits of incompetence and illegitimacy lead the student body to view the Society as nothing more than a grooming centre for aspiring politicians, which is not what a student government should be for. Student societies are essential for the health of a student body; they are a unified voice that can further student interests in front of larger university administrative bodies. When the administration infringes on students’ rights, the responsibility falls on a strong student government to fight for its members. Student societies also support their populations by organizing programs and initiatives to provide free or low-cost services to their members, from survivor advocacy to childcare.
SSMU is in desperate need of an overhaul: It must shift from being a playground for political-wannabes to a legitimate, necessary, and functioning governing body. Like in any democratic system, this kind of political shift requires cooperation between both the electorate and the elected. First, students need to take the time to use their ballots effectively. Next, SSMU’s elected executives must convince each and every undergraduate that they are worthy of their attention, by governing in their voters’ best interests. Right now, a functional Society seems impossible—and it is, unless students take the time to convince themselves that SSMU isn’t just a politician puppy-mill or a meme-generator, but also a vital authority that brings forward students’ opinions to McGill’s attention.