Only a month ago, McMaster celebrated its highest MSU Presidential election voter turnout in recent history. Nearly 50 percent of MSU members cast a ballot in a highly contentious election. The MSU administration, the candidates and their teams prided themselves on their ability to engage the student body at such a high level. For the two weeks of campaigning, campus came alive with political allegiances and discussion of important student concerns.
None of that momentum was felt at the MSU General Assembly on March 15.
Attendance at the annual event peaked at around 50 students, a pitiful number, especially considering the gravity of the issues at hand. These included tuition advocacy, MSU vice presidential elections at-large and the termination of Glen DeCaire as Head of Campus Security. In order for quorum to be met and any decisions to be considered valid, three percent of the MSU’s voting members must be present at the General Assembly, around 660.
“We need to think about balancing [the voices] of the students who do come out, and making sure it’s an accurate representation of the student body.”
Inna Berditchevskaia, MSU Speaker, knows the General Assembly can highlight an issue of great importance to students. “It has the potential to be very effective if we can actually get a representative sample of students in the room … At last year’s GA we reached quorum because there was one issue that students cared a lot about, and I don’t think it was the GA, I don’t think it was the opportunity to speak to something on the MSU level that appealed to students,” she said, citing the example of the passing of BDS at last year’s General Assembly.
“I wish more people had come out. I was the one to organize this and I put a lot of planning into it, so it was unfortunate to see so few people come out,” Berditchevskaia said, adding that the MSU used all of its own avenues for advertising the event, plus the creation of a widely-shared Facebook event.
For Kathleen Quinn, an incoming SRA Social Sciences caucus member who put forth several motions at the General Assembly, the low turnout is an indication of a greater problem within the MSU. “I think that at McMaster, it’s a cultural problem, first and foremost. When we look at the GA and the emphasis that’s put on it as a democratic vehicle, as something that can help students, but I just don’t see those conversations happening,” she explained. “I don’t believe that turnout has traditionally been high because I don’t think that the union sees itself as a democratic vehicle for change. It does have democratic principles at its core, but I don’t think we educate students about the importance of this.”
Having experienced the student activism movement in Montreal, Quinn said universities in Quebec tend to approach their General Assemblies in a different way than McMaster. “It was really interesting to see how many people, when I said we only have one GA a year, were shocked. They were used to participating more often and on different levels,” said Quinn.
Despite the low turnout, both Berditchevskaia and Quinn were adamant that the three percent quorum not be changed, a decision that would require a constitutional referendum. “I don’t think that lowering that threshold means that we get that plethora of voices. If we lowered quorum or didn’t have quorum, a tiny group of us would be able to push through things. And we need to make sure we have those big conversations,” Quinn said.
Berditchevskaia agrees. “We need to think about balancing [the voices] of the students who do come out, and making sure it’s an accurate representation of the student body, because we do need to keep in mind that the student body is 22,000 people.”
As the event did not come close to having the required minimum of 660 members present, the motions put forth will now be discussed by the SRA at their meeting on March 20 — a shift in the discussion that seems dubious, as very few SRA members were present at General Assembly.
Many of the members who were there spent the two hours laughing and chatting amongst each other, appearing unengaged by the debates and motions they will now have to discuss and vote on with no more formal expertise than the constituents they represent.
For the future, Berditchevskaia wants to see the attitude of the MSU shift. “I think we need to go about it from a perspective of not advertising for the GA but creating a culture in which students want to be engaged with the democratic process regardless of how contentious the issue that’s being brought up is,” she said.
“I don’t believe that turnout has traditionally been high because I don’t think the union sees itself as a democratic vehicle for change … I don’t think we educate students about the importance of this.”
Quinn sees the transient nature of the student body as a reason there is so little commitment to improving campus for others. “You have a sense of, I guess, responsibility over your own future. Maybe that’s why participation isn’t happening. People don’t feel like they are responsible for what happens next.”
Going forward, the issues — including a motion asking that the MSU advocate for a provincial tuition freeze — will be discussed at the March 20 SRA meeting. Any of the motions put forth could pass, be amended at the will of the assembly, or face all-out rejection.
Photo Credit: Mike Beattie