Student assemblies are not the best way to promote ‘direct democracy’
Photo: Rémi Yuan
It’s time to admit that general assemblies at the University of Ottawa have been a failed experiment.
Following the success of the GA referendum last February, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) has hosted two GAs this academic year, both of which failed to meet quorum. Each event cost approximately $5,000 to run, including hefty venue rental fees for the Shaw Centre and translation/sign language services.
Altogether that’s $10,000 spent, countless hours wasted, and no motions passed.
Even if the November GA could be said to be a disappointing first attempt, the most recent one was undoubtedly a gong show.
The Fulcrum reported that while the first GA was short fewer than a dozen students, this year’s GA only attracted 107 people out of 337 needed for quorum.
Fulcrum reporters tweeted throughout the event that attendees left in droves as it became apparent that the event wouldn’t come close to quorum, and the small crowd that stayed until the end shouted down the chair for refusing to extend the question period. Even the Revolutionary Students’ Movement (RSM)—the driving force behind the creation of the GA—eventually decided to walk out.
Afterwards, SFUO President Anne-Marie Roy sunk to a new low by blaming the drafters of motions—arguably the ones who cared about this process the most—for not doing their part to bring more students out. After these students put so much work into creating and soliciting support for motions that weren’t voted on, Roy’s comments were very disrespectful.
Considering how low voter turnout is for general student elections, I don’t see how anyone expected a GA to get anywhere close to quorum. Most citizens—including students—have neither the time nor the inclination to perform in-depth research into every policy and vote on them individually. That’s why we use a representative democracy.
Apathy isn’t the only issue here. The GA format itself disenfranchises students, many of whom have to attend class or work at the same time, a fact that isn’t helped by the complete absence of proxy or online voting. Many students were unable to attend the GA for legitimate reasons, and it’s ignorant to blame them for lack of quorum.
Academic amnesty—as has been suggested by the RSM and incoming SFUO president David Gakwerere—isn’t the answer, either.
While this policy would prevent students from being officially penalized for their absence in class, it wouldn’t compensate them for the inconvenience of missing an important lecture. Additionally, it doesn’t do anything to accommodate students who have conflicts with work or other mandatory commitments.
Say what you want about general elections, but at least they give students the option to vote at a time and location that’s convenient for them.
Are there reforms that could make the GAs slightly more effective? Probably. But that still doesn’t change the fact that these student assemblies are an inherently bad idea. The costs are unsustainable, the concept is flawed, and the format is impractical. If we really want to foster direct democracy at the U of O, there are better avenues to take, including an increased use of referendums.
There’s no salvaging this sinking ship. It’s time to move on.