Candidates face-off at the Executive Candidate Election Forum. ELAINE ZHU/THE VARSITY

Student politicians artfully dodge answering questions in favour of campaign rhetoric

On Thursday, March 7, the five executive candidates from both Team U of T Voice and Team Unite met at the Bahen Centre for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) spring election executive  forum. Students from across campus had the opportunity to grill candidates on their platforms, and while politicians are notorious for dodging questions answering with buzzwords and rhetoric, there were some outstanding — and, of course some poor — candidates that need to be recognized.

The VP-external candidates were Nicky Bhatty of Unite and Grayce Slobodian of Voice. While both candidates spoke with conviction, Bhatty was the only one to provide clear, concrete answers regarding his proposed goals for next year. Slobodian offered little to no particulars on how to improve transit, citing that she could talk about it, but wanted to prove her worth through her actions instead. Bhatty, on the other hand, clearly specified his objectives: improved shuttle service from UTM to Hart House and making the buses more accessible, for example.

Certainly, credit must be given to both VP-equity candidates: Najiba Ali Sardar of Voice and Baliqis Olaitan Hashiru of Unite. Both women are clearly incredibly passionate about what they do, and showed an honest and genuine concern for achieving equality across campus. As a visually impaired student, I can say with honesty that I will have a tough time deciding which of these two to vote for.

Next up to speak were Pierre Harfouche from the Unite slate and ZiJian Yang from Voice, both vying for VP-university affairs. While Harfouche was the better speaker, this does not necessarily make him the better candidate. He, like his running-mate Bhatty, identified some specifics goals, such as his desire to complete the Student Commons project; Yang, however, also expressed his concern over the existing grade-drop policy.

Competing for the position of VP-internal were Cameron Wathey and Anna Yin. A member of Unite, Yin made clear her position on accountability and transparency, an issue close to the heart for many students. She pledged to release UTSU financial information and streamlining services, which is no surprise considering her slate is campaigning against the incumbents. When presented with a question about “groupthink” caused by slates, Wathey pointedly dodged it by answering with comments about his own policy.

Rounding out and summarizing the debate were presidential candidates Ye Huang and Yolen Bollo-Kamara. In her opening address, Bollo-Kamara ignored the ongoing issues facing the UTSU in the form of defederation, while Huang dove into it head-on and outlined his changes. A question from a current UTSU executive about “uniting U of T” was answered well by Huang, while Bollo-Kamara stressed the current UTSU role in school unity. Just like the rest of their teams’ respective candidates, Team Unite addressed the concerns facing the UTSU head-on, while the incumbent slate, as seems to be the norm, avoided these issues in favour of trying to frame the conversation around their achievements. In short, politicians acted as politicians do.

Stephen Warner is in first year studying English and political science.


Too many questions, too few answers at the UTSU Executive Candidate Election Forum

“Could I have a follow-up, because they didn’t really answer?” This statement, voiced by a student during the University of Toronto Students’ Union (utsu) spring election executive  forum last Thursday became a theme of the evening. This particular student was inquiring about candidate’s strategies for dealing with the nature of mental health on campus. “Strategies,” “goals,” and “plans” were common in the evening’s questions; however, substantive answers  were few and far between.

The majority of questions were met with answers that stuck to the slates’ and candidates’ platforms without really addressing the specifics of the queries. For instance, Zack Medow, vice-president, external at the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), asked the VP-external candidates to explain their strategies regarding the dissatisfied relationship between divisional and college leaders and the UTSU. Nicky Bhatty reiterated his platform, focusing on unity and collaboration. Grayce Slobodian offered a similarly vague response after a lengthy pause.

When Meadow pressed for specifics, both candidates expressed that they did not have intimate experience with the Student Societies Summit, and were ultimately unable to satisfy the question — despite this being a pivotal issue affecting U of T student government.

Questions regarding the future of the Transitional Year Programme, the Washroom Inclusivity Project, and potential union defederation were met with emotionally compelling comments about a commitment to unity, and often extensive reiterations of the facts of the issues, but not necessarily the concrete strategies and plans that the students asking those questions were looking for.

It would be unreasonable to expect the candidates to come to the debate with revolutionary ideas that would change the face of student life and government overnight. Questions about how candidates would effect change at the level of the provincial government are liable to end in predictable answers such as “lobby the government,” simply because ideas about promoting legislative change are hard to come by. However, when lobbying becomes the answer for the majority of issues, whether directed at the university or another institution, it becomes redundant.

When posing a scenario regarding visually impaired students being denied their accessibility needs to the VP-university affairs candidates, Khalid Khan — a current New College director at UTSU — qualified his question by saying, “please refrain from saying lobbying.”  Khan required a follow-up to the candidates’ answers, expressing that he felt his question had not been answered.

In running for student leadership position, it is assumed that the candidates are willing to take on the implied responsibilities, including being familiar with key issues on campus and possessing the knowledge to address them when asked. The ideals the candidates are running on are admirable; collaboration and unity are important, lower fees for transportation and tuition are important, equity is important. But regardless of the merits of the ideals, they can only be achieved with a plan — or at least a suggestion for a plan — to see them come to fruition. Given the serious issues facing the future of U of T’s student government, one thing is clear: it would be more reassuring to head to the polls next week with more answers, and fewer questions.

Samantha Relich is The Varsity’s Associate Comment Editor.

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