Should They Take my Political Rights? Yes or No?

Look, I wouldn’t blatantly say it’s a power grab. But, at the same time, I can’t say it’s not. It’s either a power-grab or the people who we’ve elected to represent us don’t understand how centralizing power strips Acadia students of political agency.  All the buzz around the Acadia Students’ Union (ASU) is surrounding their proposed amendments to the bylaws. By and large I’m fine with the majority of these changes.

However, the proposed changes to By-law 4, specifically that “the proposal would allow only Council-initiated referenda” are out of touch with the ASU’s mandate which “advocates for the rights of the students of Acadia within our university, within the Wolfville and Valley communities, and to the provincial and federal governments.” Instead, the proposed changes would require students to submit a question to the SRC first and require them to vote in favour of posing the referendum question to the student body. In English, this means that students would have no way of having their desires voted on by the student body at large if Council didn’t approve.

Let’s play out a fictitious scenario to describe how big of a power move this is. Don’t like fair trade coffee on campus? Do you think at least half of the students on campus agree with you? As it currently stands, a student who answered yes to one or both of those questions could circulate a paper petition to collect enough signatures to trigger what’s called a referendum question. Essentially, this means that at some point the ASU will put this question to a vote for the student body to decide whether they agree with the petition or not. In the case that the majority of students vote yes, the ASU would have to attempt to realize whatever result comes from the referendum. The process of having student-initiated referendum questions allows students to participate more directly in student politics.

“Now, Kyle, you sit here telling me that removing this ability from the hands of students may not be a big deal since the ASU is supposed to serve us anyway. Why, then, is submitting the question to them first such a big deal? Surely, our council cares about students and will do what’s in students’ best interest.” While well-intentioned, this sentiment assumes that the ASU both knows exactly what the student body wants at all times (this is very hard to do, even at a small institution), and more importantly it suggests that the ASU will always work with students rather than against them.

Remember that fair trade coffee example? Well, after the proposed changes, a student would not be able to trigger a referendum question with a petition without the approval of the ASU. Here’s the thing though: there is no guarantee that the ASU will recognize the petition as an important student issue. Accordingly, the ASU could basically say “you know what, we don’t really want to ask this question because we don’t think it’s our responsibility.” They could choose to completely ignore the wishes of students who have collected enough support over an issue simply because they don’t want to.

I don’t think words could describe how dangerous the precedent set by these changes is. Limiting students’ abilities to access the SRC (which is already confusing and tough to navigate as a student) is dramatically out of step with ASU values. It makes no sense for a student union that claims to be advocating for student rights  to continue to support proposed amendments that at best limit students’ ability to access the ASU, and at worst set the precedent for the ASU to limit students’ political power, and consolidate it within their own ranks.

After repeated requests for comment, I was able to sit down on the record for an interview with ASU Councillor Christopher Vanderburgh. Christopher immediately made it clear that “he was there solely in his capacity as a Councillor within the students’ union, and that any of the proceeding statements are not endorsed by the students’ union.” Christopher believes “it’s important for students to hear observations from those who are well-acquainted with ASU procedures regarding the proposed Bylaw changes; specifically Bylaw 4.” He adds that “a referendum is a yes or no question that is proposed when we vote. As an example: should fair trade coffee be sold on campus? Yes or no?” Based on this answer- since the ASU’s mandate is to serve students- they would have to execute policy to fulfill the desires of students.

When asked if he thinks the ability for students to submit petitions could actually see meaningful change on campus he said “[the ability for students to petition for referendum questions] is an excellent tool for students to ensure that their goals are being met by the union.” When asked for a real-world example of this, Christopher mentioned a referendum question that was added to the ballot which asked if students would accept additional students fees every year to support the renovation of the Axe Lounge. However, he notes that “that question was brought forward by the union itself.” Nonetheless, a referendum was used to gauge student support for something that affects a large portion of the student body.

When asked about the proposed change to Bylaw 4 and what this means for student accessibility to the union Christopher stated ”you wouldn’t lose your ability to have a referendum. What you would lose, is your ability as a student to have a petition signed by the required amount of signatures … to initiate a referendum question. Instead, students would have to bring this petition forward in front of a general meeting of council.” He continued to explain “what makes that more difficult, whether or a referendum would happen (to his understanding), it would have to be at the behest of the ASU.”

Further, he explains that “if you want to see a big change at Acadia, and you want to see the ASU get behind it in a big way, that is how you operationalize it.” Finally, Christopher gave the following warning: “Make no mistake, this is damaging to the union, and this is damaging to the way students operate within the union.” He continued to explain “the ASU brought up a number of concerns, regarding how the Bylaw stands now. The theory is if a student wanted to do something drastically difficult, and they got the petition through and the referendum passed [student votes totalled a majority] the ASU would have to support the results regardless of what it is.”

Christopher continued to explain “if students were able to successfully collect signatures on a petition, and if the following referendum results yielded a majority, IT IS THE ASU’s JOB TO DO THAT”. Further, he notes that ‘this is the case regardless of the logistical challenges that come with that responsibility.” Christopher concluded that “he thinks the ASU does a lot for students … and that he believes the ASU has put a lot of work into amending the bylaws.” But he adds that he thinks “proposed changes to Bylaw 4 are damaging to student rights within the framework of the union, and they are damaging to the democratic processes within it.” 

When governments, unions, or businesses limit power to only a few sources it drastically increases the ability for such regulations to be abused. This especially happens with older traditions, or procedures that are deemed as morally good or the way it’s always been. If this isn’t a power-grab from the ASU, they are seriously naive and complacent of the danger such amendments would have for the democratic structure/processes of the ASU.

Kyle Thompson-Clement is a fifth year politics major, the Opinions Editor of The Athenaeum, and Vice-President of the Acadia Model United Nations Association.

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As a student currently going through the petition and referendum process I am horrified at the proposed changes. It needs to be up to the students what they would support or oppose on a referendum ballot and this amendment potentially strips that ability. Thank you for the article, it’s spot on!