On December 30, 2009, PM Stephen Harper prorogued parliament, creating a catalyst for debate on accountability in democracy and the power of elected officials. For the majority of his political life, Stephen Harper opposed making appointments to fill vacancies in the Upper House, described pejoratively as “Canada’s Unelected Senate.”
A debate over the accountability of elected vs. appointed officials is happening here at U of T, although not in an open university forum. The UTSU has received criticism for a perceived lack of transparency and accountability on the part of its executive, specifically the VP Campus Life position.
The Executive has six members: the President and the VPs External, Internal/Services, Equity, University Affairs, and Campus Life. All of them receive a substantial salary paid for by students’ ancillary fees (the 2010 budget assigns $745, 000 for the “Salaries and Wages” of the executive and its employees), wield considerable power, and manage sizable budgets. Surprisingly, only five of these positions are elected. The VP Campus Life is chosen by the Executive and ratified by the Board of Directors.
The change from democratic election to executive appointment of the VP Campus Life is a recent one. At a UTSU (then SAC) Annual General Meeting in 2005, the position was changed as part of a reform package. The change was justified to prevent the VP in charge of club funding from providing “patronage” to the clubs who helped him/her get elected. This argument implies that the VP Campus Life could get away with such graft without exposure; simply appointing the position would not fix the larger problem of transparency.
The VP Campus Life runs the UTSU’s club recognition process and allocates a budget of approximately $178, 000 dollars to the university's clubs. Recently, the position faced controversy when EFUT was denied funding because it did not properly follow the club recognition process by not providing a member list. Instead of being asked to provide a list, they were simply rejected and told to reapply.
Clubs must apply for funding in October and await the Campus Life Commission’s November verdict. If rejected, they cannot reapply until January. In response, the B of D held an emergency meeting on Dec. 3. EFUT received less funding than it requested. In the Jan. 7 issue, The Varsity reported that "UTSU warns clubs that if they do submit a statement of appeal, there is the possibility that they will receive no funding at all."
Appointed politicians should operate above politics. They are only effective if they serve for extended periods, bringing the benefits of their experience without pandering to populist bases. There is no incentive to redress the decisions of the Campus Life Commission because the VP is not accountable to the electorate, although he/she is on the Executive and paid. It seemed as if prorogation was an arcane tool of parliamentary procedure that could not affect Canadian democracy. Two years and two prorogations later, we should closely examine our electoral systems, even at the micro-level of the UTSU.