Letter to the Editor: The problem with representative democracies

The Students’ Union of St. Thomas University is, like all student unions in Canada, a primarily democratic institution. But what many may not consider, is that it is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. Very rarely do students actually take part in any sort of decision making within the Union, because the students that have been elected to represent them often handle the entirety of the decision making. Are the interests of the students properly represented in a representative democracy?

The problem with representative democracies is that students are often not well engaged. Representatives often do not take the necessary time to sit down with those who they are accountable to and ensure they are effectively representing student interests. Often, it is the self-belief they have been elected and that is enough. Representatives only seem to sufficiently interact with the electorate twice each year, during election season, and during Welcome Week. Not all representatives operate in this fashion, but some do, if not most. A few are almost entirely out of touch and lack the necessary care to properly represent the student body.

The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) is, as the name implies, a council containing all those that have been elected to represent the students. The mission statement of the Constitution of the Students’ Union make it clear the purpose of this body is to handle the decision making and to represent the students. But how well can those elected represent the students if they fail to consult the students, or if they fail to take the necessary time to sit down and discuss the issues with students? Some of those elected claim to “just know” what the students want … through osmosis or telepathy I presume.

Representative democracies often accurately represent student interest at first, but their shelf life expires as time passes, they become out of touch with the electorate. As one of few to have been elected to three consecutive terms on the Students’ Union, I have seen representatives on both sides of the spectrum, and I have seen representatives slowly drift from one end to the other. I have seen representatives come and go without a trace, and I have seen others who can never truly be replaced. I have seen some who have started their term with excellency, but by the end of their term were almost entirely out of touch with the student body. A common trend that I have noticed is executives (the president and vice-presidents) often stay fresh throughout their entire term and never lose touch with the students.

As author Mark Twain once said, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” One must wonder if our student representatives are changed often enough.

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