The student politics problem

Over at the University Winnipeg, my former colleague Joey Dearborn (@joeydearborn) writes on the sad state of affairs of our student politics. I agree with a lot of what Joey is saying. The student body generally has little idea how their money is spent. Nor would I dispute his statement that the majority of students probably couldn’t name 5 UWSA directors offhand. I agree that the majority of U of W students won’t vote. Indeed, in this last election, barely 9% of students voted.

I have some trouble with some of the connections Joey makes. In his article, he states “I thought student leaders had my best interests at heart, and would act to change campus for the better. I was wrong.” He mentions that the position of President has gone uncontested for three years running (ouch), which relieves Executive positions from being held accountable to the student body.

I’m confused, because I agree with most of Joey’s points. Yes, we should always demand better representation. Yes, we should have more competitive elections, which would boost turnout. However, I don’t think it’s fair or justified to take a low voter turnout and claim it’s the result of poor governance and bad intentions of the student government.

I imagine Executives of the past few years have been tearing their hair out trying to improve voter turnout and overall student engagement. This doesn’t excuse them from being held to high standards; they absolutely have room for improvement. If what they’re trying isn’t working, they should continue to try new things. However, voter apathy is something we know exists beyond campus politics. It’s not an easy problem to solve. I think Mr. Dearborn is a touch irresponsible to implicate both their intentions and their effort without giving a more specific explanation of what he means. Perhaps I misinterpret his words.

When voter turnout is barely 9%, and each of the four full-time, salaried executive positions goes uncontested, I do think we should be concerned. I do not believe it’s the result of a lack of effort or intent from the energetic group of executives we’ve seen at the UWSA over the past few years. (disclosure: many of whom I know personally.) To me, this assessment is simplistic.

The question remains: if what the UWSA is doing isn’t working to get students involved, what do students want?

Across town at the U of M, it seems there’s discomfort of a different sort. Student Paul Bell wrote a letter to the editor this week, critiquing the lack of substance in the winning slate’s relatively apolitical platform. I could nitpick with some of Paul’s points. As noted in the comments, good student government does not necessarily mean student government that agrees with your politics. While it would be lovely if U of M-goers went to see more student opera and theatre, that is both a bit of an ideological imposition and a bit of a stretch. Still, I agree with most of what he had to say. I, personally, would like to see a student government that is engaged in political issues, and works towards making education more accessible. Yet it’s not what students at voted for.

UMSU’s contested elections and somewhat polarizing President brought them a substantially bigger voter turnout: 5 900 of roughly 29 000 total students, just over 20%. The winners advocated for “big things,” “no regrets,” and some very serious dance parties. Is this preferable? Are these students’ best interests? 

Perhaps it’s what’s needed to energize students at U of W. Maybe there’s an untapped group of students who would be drawn to a campaign based more around school spirit, sporting events and organized parties.

A push-and-pull between students with different priorities might be what’s needed to motivate more students to talk about the issues, to campaign and to get out to vote.

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