A couple weeks ago, I assigned the University of Toronto Students’ Union a “Democracy Score” of 6.5—a score that puts it in the low end of the “Flawed Democracy” category according to The Economist’s Democracy Index.
And while that article was a light-hearted attempt to put an empirical number behind the charges often directed at UTSU, the response to the article and the feedback I’ve received have exposed a deeply-held conviction among U of T students that their student union has repeatedly failed to represent them in any democratic way.
This criticism is not new, unfortunately. A search through The Varsity’s online archives (using, for example, the search terms “UTSU” and “democracy”) reveals many articles over the past decade with a similar critical refrain—and a lack of articles praising UTSU’s actions in response to those criticisms.
The main problem with UTSU is incumbency. In my time at U of T, the incumbents have never lost. It’s shocking when you think about it. It’s even more shocking when you learn that some of the “students” running our student union are in their seventh year of study. But please, have some sympathy, it’s not their fault—the rules of the game, which they control, make it nearly impossible for them to lose elections. It must be hard knowing that, try as you might, no matter how many prayers you offer to the patron saint of “finally getting your degree,” the stars have aligned to make sure you are incapable of losing an election.
The latest changes to the Elections Code, which have been reported in this newspaper, and which were ratified by the UTSU Board of Directors on February 12, 2010, make it illegal under the code to criticize the CRO by undermining his authority or that of the Elections Committee. So when I write that Dave Blocker is unfit to serve as an unbiased CRO because he once served on the Executive of the Ontario New Democratic Youth (the young NDP), does that mean I can’t run in the UTSU elections? Am I violating their rules? I’m certainly trying to openly undermine his authority.
How about when I write that the Chair of the Elections Committee, Adnan Najmi, is grossly unqualified to serve on that committee because he maintains personal friendships with many of the UTSU candidates who will be seeking re-election? Not only do I question his authority, but I also call for his immediate resignation and suggest that these elections will not be free or fair until he steps down.
Another of the changes made on February 12, 2010 forbids campaigning anywhere that serves alcohol. It means that I, a potential candidate, cannot go out for a beer with my friends and talk politics.
Why the crackdown on joviality? The Committee’s official explanation is that UTSU wants to make sure that students are “of sound mind” when they’re receiving information. Is the committee serious? Leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of non-alcoholic ways not to be of sound mind, it’s an over-step and an abuse for UTSU to police the mental states of its members.
Finally, and worst of all, UTSU has passed a change to the Code that says that the Board of Directors no longer has a role in choosing polling stations. Not content to have the board simply be uninvolved in the polling station selection process, they’ve taken away the board’s power to ratify those selections. And on February 12, the board actually consented.
The official explanation they offered is offensive to students and should be offensive to their representatives. Giving the board the power to ratify the placement of polling stations apparently opens up the process to “unnecessary lobbying.”
Effective oversight is necessary, as is consulting your members. Students at St. Mike’s or Vic have the right to say to the Elections Committee that they want a polling station at their college. Students at Woodsworth College have the right to ask why their polling station was removed and replaced with one at OISE. The answer is plain and simple: the defenders of incumbency on UTSU’s Elections Committee suspect that a challenger candidate may come out of Woodsworth, and they want to neutralize his or her attempt to “get out the vote.”
These kinds of changes, made for blatantly short-run political reasons, are why U of T students have lost faith in UTSU. We no longer believe that it’s possible for this group of students to run free and fair elections. It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and come up with an Elections Code that is free, fair, and equitable. It’s time for UTSU to put principles over dirty politics.