In this day and age, it’s hardly a compliment to be called a good politician. Many of us have heard this term used to describe people and behaviours that embrace posturing and partisanship rather than constructive debate and leadership.
Rather than accepting such a sullied reputation, however, student politicians should actively seek to debunk the impression that politics is incompatible with cooperative, multi-partisan solutions to complex problems.
In fact, student politicians have a particular responsibility to this end. Their proximity and close connection to their local jurisdictions means that they possess the ability to set a positive example of proper political conduct for a generation of university students.
Yet it appears many student representatives at U of T are currently falling well short of setting such a positive example. The Editorial Board is embarrassed by the accumulation of terrible behaviour that has been displayed by student representatives over the course of the academic year, particularly as it pertains to how they have chosen to communicate with the public sphere, both in person and online.
Student politicians should understand themselves as public figures, albeit operating within a local community. Over the course of the past year, it has become clear that many do not. From the SMCSU Snapchat scandal, to the apparent contest for power over the UTSU letterhead that followed some executive members’ statement on the CFS, to the deplorable excuse for debate that occurred at the latest UTSU Board of Directors meeting over a decision to go in camera, the way that student politicians at U of T interact more closely resembles a teenage drama than a model for good governance.
Moreover, every instance of a board meeting going awry through finger-pointing and toxic rhetoric is complemented by an array of crass subtweets and Facebook wars. Hostility and pettiness both online and offline has underscored an altogether chaotic political environment at U of T.
Of course, not all student politicians have taken to such juvenile tactics. However, everyone in a leadership position at this university should be doing more to create forums for constructive debate and to lead by example. Refraining from tweet storming and distinguishing social media posts and political activities that are performed outside of one’s political office would be a good place to start. Then, elected representatives across campus should explicitly agree to conduct business with one another in a civil, professional tone.
It would be easy to relieve student representatives of these expectations, perhaps, by citing the fact that politicians at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels hardly do any better. It is rare to hear a real question during the so-called question period at either Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill, and the idea of amicable working relationships that cross party lines seems a far-gone dream.
But abandoning the responsibility to act with civility would be a mistake for two reasons.
First, believing that politicians cannot cooperate inherently lowers our expectations of them, and we are less likely to demand change if we believe politicians are not up to the task of fulfilling it. When we cannot meaningfully hold elected representatives accountable, everyone loses.
Second, nastiness in the political sphere could have a deleterious impact on the important work that we entrust to our elected officials. After roughly half of the UTSU Executive released a statement supporting CFS decertification, the Editorial Board lauded their strong commitment to financial accountability.
Only later was it revealed that the other half of the UTSU Executive had not been in favour of these actions, after a statement was released from these members denouncing the initial endorsement. The Editorial Board was consequently left with little faith that the Executive would be able to work together for the rest of the year.
This seemed to prove true when, a couple of weeks later, Vice-President, Internal and Services Mathias Memmel and Vice-President, University Affairs Cassandra Williams sparred over an in camera Board of Directors session, which involved discussion of the union’s lawsuit against its former Executive Director, Sandra Hudson.
Of course, controversies are not limited to internal UTSU matters and can affect students across campus. Many students were angered when Williams participated in disruptive protests at an October free speech rally. These critics cited the opinion that, as a student representative, Williams should have taken more care to listen to the students at the rally, whom she is responsible for representing in her role on the UTSU.
While we should expect our representatives to hold principled stances on issues, the way that they act on those principles matters. Moments like these have resulted in a rise of anti-establishment sentiment, which seems to have coalesced into the Reboot UofT election slate. Williams’ actions may be considered evidence that the union is not accessible to all students regardless of their political opinions, as reflected by previously expressed opinions in The Varsity and general controversy within the campus community last semester.
There is no better time to hold politicians accountable than before they take office, and for us constituents, that time is now. As the 2017 UTSU election season unfolds, and with college and divisional society elections underway, students will have the ability to question candidates not only on their platforms, but on the way that they plan on carrying them out. We can only hope that future methods will reflect increased cooperation and maturity.