I’ve spent the last two years covering the St. Thomas University students’ union and there are a few things voters should know going into the election, especially when they’re listening to promises to change the atmosphere of the union.
First, there’s a lack of student engagement. Barely 20 per cent of students vote and often none attend public meetings. Coupled with other factors, this means elected representatives have little obligation to follow through on promises. Only those deeply committed are able to pass their agenda.
Those divisive issues become focal points of rare debate while other matters simply receive unanimous approval. A few hundred dollars to this or that club with no discussion.
Decrying “petty debates” and ideological feuds is too easy.
There certainly have been some petty debates last year and this year, some about the process of reviewing membership in the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
At last week’s meeting, for example, former president Ella Henry wouldn’t make eye contact with current president Mark Livingstone as the two went back and forth about the process to create the ad hoc review committee.
What was evident from the speeches and the presidential debate was a confounding lack of knowledge about how the union works from those who want to hold the the top positions in the union.
Obviously, they won’t know everything from the start, but since some of these people decided to run last semester, they could have spent more time getting to know how things work.
Of those running for executive positions, five have hands-on union experience.
John Hoben, Emily Sheen, Elizabeth Strange, Cristobal Vasquez and Nicole Pozer all have spent time at the table.
Some candidates, such as Megan Aiken, have at least spent time on STUSU committees.
Others have come to at least one meeting during the election to get a sense of what is going on. The rest? Perhaps if they can’t show up to learn how the meetings run, they won’t bother showing up for the job they seem to want.
With the race for president down to two candidates, the choice is simpler.
Those remaining, Hoben and Sheen, have spent time at the STUSU table, but you should still question how much they know about how the union works.
Voters should also be wary of promises to cut the deficit. What looks like a deficit of $7,879 on monthly budget updates tends to be wiped out at the end of the year. That’s because the union doesn’t spend everything it projects to spend, leaving an actual surplus at the end of the year. It isn’t the simplest concept, and it doesn’t sound as good as “we need to get rid of the deficit” in a speech.
Another way to waste time at the union is to come up with creative ways to spend the extra $130,000 the union has on hand.
In 2010, it was a scholarship fund, 2011 a STUSU-run bookstore, and now the means to give a bursary to each student who didn’t get a student loan.
It has become the third rail of STUSU politics. Touch it and the idea dies. They’d know that, though, if they did research.
So, today when you step behind that flimsy divider and look at the names on the handful of ballots you have, you should be looking for someone who will be a competent leader.
Despite the “petty debates,” leaders of the past few years have been capable and smart. Years ago under Duncan Gallant, then Mark Henick, Ella Henry, and now Mark Livingstone. Left, right or centre they all had their own direction they wanted to take the union, and may have caused a stir from time-to-time, but they managed to do pretty well.
What voters should be looking for is someone who can do that starting May 1 while managing personality and ideological conflicts well.
So, is there someone running who can do all of that?