Strangling democracy by the threshold

The motion passed by the Canadian Federation of Students at their recent national AGM, which doubled the threshold of students required to trigger a referendum on continued membership from 10 per cent to 20, is an affront to democracy, a blatant self-interested attempt to put a stranglehold on power, and raises serious questions of legitimacy. In supporting this motion, known as “motion six,” the “democratically elected” representatives of our UMSU executive should be ashamed.

I write “democratically elected” because that depends on one’s own standards of what democracy is and what it involves. I have heard from UMSU executive members — on more than one occasion — that the turnout at the 2009 election was a very high one. It was a whopping 19.14 per cent student turnout, up from a mere 9.71 per cent and 7.46 per cent in 2008 and 2007 respectively. As low as 19.14 per cent seems, it appears to be an anomaly on the high end of student voter turnout.

One could write an article on low student voter turnout and the conventional voter apathy, but the point made here is that our UMSU representatives claim their democratic legitimacy — which involves representing our views to the community, and charging us fees every term and spending them however they see fit (such as flying delegates to Ottawa on our dime for the CFS AGM). All of this is based on a 19 per cent voter turnout, and that’s not even the percentage of students who actually voted for our representatives. The actual number of students who voted for our president was 15 per cent of the entire student body.

I don’t have a serious problem with this, except when our representatives raise the bar of democracy to a level they don’t attain themselves. With motion six passed, signatures of a full 20 per cent of students are required to trigger a referendum on the mere question of CFS membership. This is double the previous threshold of 10 per cent.

Allow me to illustrate this shortcoming in logic. An election with 19 per cent voter turnout — again I stress this case was an exceptionally higher turnout than the norm — yields complete democratic legitimacy for our representatives to carry out functions mentioned above. But should the same or a slightly greater number of students wish to hold an open, democratic question on the mere topic of membership in the Canadian Federation of Students, they would be completely dismissed as, in the words of motion six, “a small group of individuals” unless it reaches the lofty goal of 20 per cent. If “a small group of individuals” is under 20 per cent and is dismissed by CFS, what does one call the even smaller number of students who elect and give power to our executive?

The means by which CFS passed motion six were equally undemocratic. Less than two thirds of the 69 member schools voted for motion six, in a vote of 44 to 19, with six schools abstaining to vote. This directly contravenes the CFS constitution, which states it may only be repealed or amended by “at least two-thirds of the voting members present at a general meeting,” yet the motion still passed. How? Abstaining votes were not factored into the voting process, despite the members being present. According to a recent article by Canadian University Press Ottawa bureau chief, Emma Godmere, “The chair maintained her belief that the ‘two-thirds’ was in reference to the total number of members who voted, not the total present.”

Perhaps most astonishingly of all, CFS says that these measures are to ensure democracy on campus, so that CFS has the proper resources to properly wage a fair pro-membership campaign, should a referendum come to fruition. It appears CFS aims to make a referendum impossible, which would not ensure a democratic campaign — it would ensure no campaign takes place at all. While on paper and in theory it is still “democratic,” in practice it is nothing short of tyranny.

What is CFS afraid of in a campaign? If the benefits — such as lobbying on students’ behalf— warrant CFS membership, then there should be no cause for concern. The CFS record should stand alone, and the CFS should be confident in it. The notion that every-day students might be able to wage a one-sided campaign against the CFS is laughable. CFS is the establishment and all students of member universities fund it in part. The CFS has far more resources than an anti-membership campaign, and should not be concerned about needing to fly in resources outside of the specific university. This motion is a blatant attempt to subvert and suppress democracy on campus.

The repercussions of motion six are severe. From a purely objective standpoint, the numbers do not match up. If 20 per cent is the new threshold for democratic legitimacy, how do our representatives justify their continued positions and salary, which are paid for by the students? I’m not advocating student anarchy, but it was them who voted for this resolution, not you or me.
Blake Hamm is president of the Campus Conservatives and a staunch supporter of democracy and accountability.