Opinion: UTSU democracy advocates should look both ways
On September 23, Afghan Student Association President Madina Siddiqui called out the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Policy and Procedures Committee (PPC) for blocking her UTSU annual general meeting (AGM) motion, which called for clubs to be included in the UTSU’s budgetary process. This rejection was controversial, given the belief in some UTSU circles that new law prevents boards from blocking AGM motions.
UTSU VP Internal Ryan Gomes responded, claiming that in order to have easier access to the AGM, motions needed to be submitted by a legal deadline that was earlier than the one the UTSU announced. He added that Siddiqui’s motion wasn’t ruled out of order but “was [deemed] too vague and unfeasible to be meaningfully considered....”
Those who agree with Gomes may have laws and bylaws on their side, but not necessarily democracy. Siddiqui submitted her motion in time for the advertised deadline. While perhaps the UTSU was not bound to advertise the earlier date, it’s easy to see this as a democratic slip when the first deadline would have given members greater access to the agenda.
The decision to reject Siddiqui’s motion because it was “too vague” is also questionable. While her motion is indeed broad, that’s no reason to deny UTSU members the right to pass it. As is, it could create a flexible and powerful incentive for future UTSUs to work with club leaders.
Siddiqui wasn’t alone in her frustration. Black Student Association Vice President Sasha Henry criticized the PPC’s response to an AGM motion for the UTSU to endorse Black Lives Matter and give $1,000 to its Toronto chapter. That motion was approved, but with the caveat that the donation would only be considered as a suggestion.
Meanwhile, a motion from Naveed Ahmed and Nour Alideeb calling for a plebiscite on student support for free education was ruled out of order as it wasn’t submitted by petition or directly by the executive committee to the board. This rejection raises the question: why couldn’t the motion have been sent to an executive committee, re-endorsed and then sent to the board? Alternatively, the motion could have gone to the AGM as long as the chair explained to members its non-binding status. If some motions can be “just suggestions,” why couldn’t this one at least get that chance?
A motion from Xin We Li opposing the board’s recent vote to divert money to the Engineering Society (ENGSOC) was also ruled out of order. The fact that the UTSU’s general membership couldn’t challenge an agreement that affects them, made solely between the board and ENGSOC, is yet another democratic lapse, even if it’s arguably procedurally legitimate.
Of course, one would be hard-pressed to argue any political body is democratic all the time; that’s the cost of representative systems. This UTSU, however, swept to power by appealing to a base that regularly denounced past UTSU executives for similar mistakes. In fact, a year ago, it was a motion from then-Engineering Director Ryan Gomes that drew ire.
Putting things in perspective
Gomes submitted a motion to reform the board of directors as an alternative to a controversial proposal that had been submitted earlier that year. Gomes’s motion was blocked by the board (not the PPC, which encouraged the board to vote on motions it did not endorse), partially because UTSU lawyers warned it was unfeasible. It was also partially blocked because supporters of Gomes’s plan voted down a temporary plan C (incorporating the UTSU in Ontario instead of Canada), leading opponents of his motion to worry AGM voters would not get a fair menu of options.
Interestingly, a motion this year from VP Campus Life Akshan Bansal to incorporate in Ontario was ruled out of order because UTSU lawyers argued it was unfeasible—sound familiar?
Gomes and his supporters raised fair criticisms at the time his motion was defeated: he was not given sufficient legal advice when crafting his bill and UTSU members should have had the right to consider his motion despite its flaws. I wonder if the people who raised those arguments feel similarly about the motions from Siddiqui, Li and Ahmed and Alideeb.
Past UTSUs were often accused of being undemocratic in the service of an ideological agenda. Some accused them of forcing leftism down students’ throats. Pierre Harfouche, a successful opposition candidate for VP External last year, said he campaigned against the UTSU’s “communist nature.” Others have accused the UTSU of suppressing college and professional faculty student governments.
Whether those criticisms are fair or not, we can’t ignore that with (essentially) a new party in charge of the UTSU, motions not going to the AGM include one challenging the relationship between the UTSU and ENGSOC (which may irk this UTSU’s divisional-student government support base), and one calling for a plebiscite on free education (which may alienate this UTSU’s right-Liberal voter base).
If you were put off by the perceived failure of past-UTSUs to advertise their AGMs, you should challenge this UTSU’s not announcing the earlier of the two motion deadlines. You should ask what was done to compensate for the AGM’s timing—motions were due early in summer when many students are off campus. If you were put off by motions being rejected by past UTSUs for technical reasons, you should raise the same issues with this team.
I suspect the UTSU will continue to be a contentious organization in years to come. What I hope, however, is that future electoral slates will be judged on their ideologies and tactics, not one-sided caricatures of who is more democratic.
Zach Morgenstern is a recent University of Toronto graduate who studied Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Peace, Conflict & Justice Studies. He represented Victoria College on the University of Toronto Students Union (UTSU) Board of Directors for the Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 semesters.comments powered by Disqus