In February 2014, the University of Ottawa student body voted to institute a General Assembly as ““the highest decision-making body of the student federation.” As of 2015, two General Assemblies were held at the Ottawa Convention Centre, neither of which made quorum.
It’s time to admit that the GAs have been a failed experiment.
Following the success of the GA referendum, the SFUO has hosted two General Assemblies this academic year alone. Both have failed to meet quorum. Each cost approximately $5000 to run, including fees for Convention Centre rental and translation/sign language services. That’s $10,000 dollars, countless hours of wasted time, and no motions passed.
The Fulcrum’s Nadia Drissi El-Bouzaidi reported that while “the first GA in November was missing fewer than a dozen students,” this year’s GA only attracted 107 people. 350 were needed for quorum.
Even if the November GA could be said to be a disappointing first attempt, the most recent one was undoubtedly a gong show. In his live tweet, Fulcrum reporter Spencer Murdoch reported that attendees left in droves as it became apparent that quorum would not be reached, and the small crowd who stayed until the end shouted down SFUO President Anne-Marie Roy for refusing to extend the question period. Even the Revolutionary Student Movement, the driving force behind the creation of the GA, walked out.
Afterwards, Roy sunk to a new low blaming the drafters of motions – arguably the ones who cared about this process the most – for not doing their part to bring students out. After students put so much work into creating and soliciting support for motions that weren’t voted on, Roy’s comments were 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 representative democracy.
Apathy isn’t the only issue here. The General Assembly format itself disenfranchises students who may have class or work at the same time, and there is no method of proxy or online voting. Many students were unable to attend the GA for legitimate reasons, and it is ignorant to blame them for lack of quorum.
Academic amnesty, as has been suggested by both the RSM and incoming SFUO President David Gakwerere, isn’t the answer either. Amnesty would only prevent students from being officially penalized for their absence; it wouldn’t compensate 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 is convenient for them.
Are there reforms that could make the GAs slightly more effective? Probably. But that doesn’t change the fact that General 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 uOttawa, there are better avenues, including increased use of referendums.
There’s no salvaging this ship. It’s time to move on.
Originally published in The Fulcrum as Time to move away from the General Assemblies, April 2, 2015