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Improving MSU General Assemblies

If you're one of the many who are unfamiliar with the rather cliquey lingo of the MSU, you're probably wondering to yourself "uh, what's a General Assembly?"

It's okay to not know. In fact, most people I've talked to that aren't directly involved with the McMaster Students Union don't know, so you're not alone. Allow me to explain.

The MSU General Assembly is one of the three bodies of government within the McMaster Students Union. There is the Board of Directors consisting of the President and Vice Presidents, the Student Representative Assembly consisting of elected faculty-specific representatives (of which I am one), and then finally, the topic of this post, the General Assembly. The General Assembly is, in theory, the highest governing body within the McMaster Students Union. It is meant to override all other levels of the MSU's government structure and allows all students themselves a direct voice (and vote) in our democratic process. It is essentially akin to an implementation of direct democracy.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

Well, on paper at least.

However, during my time as both the Chair of the McMaster Students Union's Democratic Reform Committee, and as an SRA member sitting on the Bylaws and Procedures Committee, I have become increasingly critical of the way that General Assemblies are orchestrated. This is because I believe that we could be doing so much better as a student government than we have been. We have been failing to ensure that our absolute highest level of governance— and by far the most democratic— within the entire McMaster Students Unions is, well, effective— or even known to be existent, which is probably important. Maybe.

This needs to be remedied. It is of significant importance for several reasons, foremost perhaps being that one of the most sincere threats to the legitimacy of democratic governments, and the true representation of voter's opinions, is voter apathy. This is true for all levels of democratic governance, and student governments such as that of the MSU are certainly no exception. Problematically, however, the way we are currently running our General Assemblies does very little to address this reality.

In the coming weeks, the SRA will be voting upon recommendations from the Bylaws and Procedures Committee in regards to changes on the way General Assemblies work. Currently I feel that the recommendations that will be coming forward are well-meaning, but that they do not go far enough.

As such, I have been seeking the implementation of several proposals that would help not only to resolve several issues with General Assemblies, but also to mitigate voter apathy, and make the process of General Assemblies as a whole significantly more inclusive, empowering and effective.

First, let's talk about what's wrong.

The Problems

As I mentioned before, General Assemblies hold the theoretical place as the highest governing body within the MSU. However, that theoretical placement does not coincide with reality. In its current implementation, it in no way has the ability to independently exercise its power as the highest governing body. That means, by extension, that students too are devoid of that power. Which, really, defeats the entire purpose then, doesn't it?

One only need to take into consideration that in the last 19 years, the General Assembly has only met it's mandated quorum once, and this was only because at the time members of lesser bodies of MSU governance had the desire for it to do so for reasons of various political meandering.

This does not make sense.

Why was the General Assembly only able to establish quorum, in a whopping 19 years, when a different, theoretically lesser, body of the MSU government desired for it to do so?

The answer is simple: the way we are currently organizing our General Assemblies is flawed. We have 19 years of history to back that claim up. The General Assembly's success should not rely upon the prerogative of a lesser MSU governing body, if it is the highest level of our government. That's illogical— and it is at this precise point that it becomes not a separate governing body for the entire student body to participate in, but a mere political tool for the elected elite. You can see the direct outcome of this flawed nature demonstrated in the following Silhouette article, here. Nobody on the other theoretically lesser governing bodies had a use for the General Assembly that year, so it was allowed to sit by the wayside. Democracy at work, truly.

This is not an acceptable situation. As such, here's what I think we can do to help remedy it.

Proposals:

1. Establish an independent committee responsible for planning & executing GAs

Establishing a committee tasked with ensuring the promotion and execution of General Assemblies so that they are no longer dependent upon outside governing interests for their success and promotion would go a long way in ensuring that General Assemblies are continuously, and consistently, promoted and executed in an adequate manner. Currently, left as-is, holding General Assemblies is considered to be a responsibility of the President. Which, again, doesn't really make sense given that the mandate of the General Assembly is to be the highest governing body within the McMaster Students Union comprised by the students and for the students.

2. Make livestreaming of every GA mandatory

This proposal is simple. General Assemblies are intended to allow for a vast number of students to participate in the democratic functioning of their student union, but for many reasons they may not be able to make it to the physical location in which the assembly is being held. I see no reason why this should bar them from being able to observe the proceedings online. We already allow students to do this for SRA Meetings, so there really is no reason we shouldn't pursue this capability for General Assemblies. Simple stuff, really.

3. Allow online voting

This is something I feel very passionate about. The voter turnout of the last General Assembly was nothing short of abysmal. There's several reasons that this should be enacted. Currently the system we use mandates that all people must be physically present in a room and vote by raising their hands for-or-against a motion. This is a seriously dated, inadequate, and inaccessible procedure for students in many different ways. To list just a few, it could cause sincere problems for commuting students, people with disabilities, and those students who telecommute (take online courses). Further, there have been times whereby the location used to hold the General assembly could not hold the amount of people actually required to reach quorum (the mandated minimum amount of people to actually make binding votes), which really defeats the whole purpose. I see no reason why we shouldn't strive to accommodate them by making it possible for them to exercise their democratic rights within our organization by allowing for them to participate online. Doing this in tandem with live streaming would allow for a much more inclusive and modernized way of holding General Assemblies.

These proposals are something that I have advocated for vigorously because I truly feel they would help to vastly improve the way General Assemblies are held for everyone involved.

Unfortunately

Not all of these proposals have received popular support among my fellow committee members. While it seems likely that the recommendation of livestreaming General Assemblies and creating a quasi-independent organizing committee (two of the three seats will be held by members of other governing bodies) hereon out shall occur, it has ultimately been decided that online voting is not something worthy of pursuit for General Assemblies. The reasoning primarily given that it was just not feasible.

This is simply not true.

Firstly, and contradictorily, we already hold all of our elections and referendums online. Secondly, online voting is something that even Elections Ontario is pursuing. I simply don't see how one can argue that it isn't feasible to implement such a system when we've already successfully implemented it and, further, that the provincial government's election agency, responsible for maintaining elections on a much larger and more nuanced scale, considers it to be entirely feasible.

I believe the decision to not implement online voting and a truly independent committee free from the influence of other bodies of government is a poor and regrettable decision for the future democratic participation of McMaster Students in their Student Union.

While I am happy to see progress on this front to improve General Assemblies, I ultimately believe that by failing to implement these changes in their entirety, we will only continue to see students further disenfranchised from the annual MSU General Assembly.

This is not something which we should be proud of allowing to continue, especially considering the rich history of universities as places of vigorous debate and social activism.

To continue to willfully allow for our highest democratic body of governance to not engage our student population by standing idly by, is simply unacceptable.