After the first general assembly of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) almost ended in flames and the second was somewhat of an apathetic flop, it seems as if our experiment with direct democracy has been rather unsuccessful. It shouldn’t be. If the GA has so far failed, that is probably because it has been poorly conceived, and not because students don’t care.
Our president justly pointed out that the six members of the executive cannot, by themselves, gather 400 students to a GA. However, there is an important note to make: the executive members of the SFUO have the paid job of managing the SFUO; they have made a commitment. However, there is something deeply disturbing about the highest decision making body of the SFUO being essentially dependent upon the lower bodies in order to function properly: it is a massive conflict of interest. In order to have a GA that is truly representative of the will of the student body, it must be independent of the other decision-making bodies of the SFUO. It is generally recognized that elections should be run by a body independent of the organization: elections should represent the incarnation of the will of the population; the same goes for GAs, who therefore should be independent of the SFUO. In essence, the inmates shouldn’t be running the asylum.
To that end, be it proposed that the GA be managed by a body of student volunteers, none of whom are under contract or hold an elected position with the SFUO. This committee would, of course, have to be representative of the student population: it could be composed of two volunteers from each faculty, for instance. That committee would have to be chosen at least a year in advance of each GA, and could perhaps be chosen through the help of the federated bodies or perhaps an election. In the same gist, the chair of the GA should not be the chair of the Board of Administration (BOA). The chair of the GA and the agenda of the GA should be chosen by the GA, for the GA.
As well, there is a small problem as regards to motions at a GA: every motion requires 100 signatures to be presented at a GA, except for motions regarding the impeachment of elected members of the SFUO. At the GA, I was told by our president that the reason for this is that it should be hard for the GA to overturn the democratic will of the population as represented through elections. However, the GA should also be the incarnation of the democratic will of the population, and, as such, should have full power to impeach elected officials just as it would to change the Constitution (for example).
Remember, the fundamental concept behind the SFUO is that it is the incarnation of the will of student population. As such, we, as students, have absolute authority over the SFUO. The GA, as the highest decision making body of the SFUO, is the body closest to having absolute authority, and should have more power than any other body of the SFUO, especially the BOA and the executive. To have a successful general assembly, it must be independent, engaging, and, most of all, it must come from the students, for the students. We, and only we, must light the flame of our democracy.