My Opinion Piece in the McMaster Student Newspaper: The Silhouette

(TEXT in RED is text that was edited out for space, GREEN is clarifications)

Democracy is best described by Sir Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is the form of government enjoyed in our larger society—Canada. McMaster University is a society in and of itself. As full-time undergraduate students, our government is the McMaster Students Union (MSU).

As I see it, democracy has five pillars: the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, the Judiciary, the Free Press, and the Citizenry. With part, or all, of said pillars lacking, democracy crumbles. Sadly, this is the state of our student democracy right now.

Currently, the MSU does not have the second pillar: a legislative branch. The normal legislative branch is the Student Representative Assembly (SRA). I have attended every SRA meeting open to the membership since September of 2005.  (I consider the meeting held in cottage country to not be opened to the membership, I do not have a car so I cannot get to the meeting.  Plus, I cannot afford the time to drive across the province for a SRA meeting) To say the SRA is ineffective would be sugar coating it. Rarely do they hold the Executive Branch to account. Rarely do they enforce MSU Bylaws.

Based on the discussions I have had with SRA members in the last forty-eight hours, I believe this is about to change. I hope so; the SRA can be a great body that can accomplish a great deal. It, however, needs each member to be an effective watchdog over the MSU. There are millions of dollars collected from students at stake and the SRA needs to be reminded that they are the guardians of that money. I look forward to the return of the second pillar, hopefully, at the end of the month once the SRA by-elections conclude.

The third pillar is an independent and fair judiciary branch. The courts exist to prevent miscarriages of justice and to make sure the governing branches follow the rules that citizens lay out for their operation. It also allows for any citizen to have a fair hearing when the government is unjust, corrupt, or otherwise in violation of the law. The most effective student unions in the country have a judiciary branch. The MSU does not. If we had this pillar, it could rule as to whether decisions of the MSU are in accordance with policies. Without it, we must trust our student politicians to make that ruling. This is the most important pillar of the governing pillars because it buttresses the other two in place, no matter who controls them.

The fourth pillar is the free and independent press. We do not have this. Right now, we have a press that is ultimately controlled by our politicians. This is how we arrived at the place we are at; we have allowed the MSU to have ultimate control over our student press.

I read over two dozen student newspapers a week and can attest that the best student newspapers are those that are independent. The Silhouette is one of the last student union controlled papers in the country and one of the largest.

I attended the University of Manitoba where I served on Council (their version of the SRA). Every student politician there respected the newspaper. The reporters fearlessly pursued stories and questioned what was done with student money. We all knew that if we did not do our job properly, we would be held to account and read about it in The Manitoban (the campus paper). Indeed, its journalists investigate stories and endeavour to finds the truth, to do their part in ensuring the students union does not become blind with power. Students can count on the ‘Toban to protect their student democracy.

The best student newspaper in the country, in my opinion, is The Peak at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Every student union in the lower mainland of B.C. knows if they are not proper stewards of student money, The Peak will let students know.
For instance, the Douglas Students’ Union (DSU) is currently in the middle of a major crisis involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in missing money (according to a forensic audit). The DSU controls the campus paper, The Other Press. There have been no stories about the financial crisis within the DSU. The first that students at the DSU learned of the mismanagement of their money was fromThe Peak. Later, The Peak revealed that the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) loaned the DSU hundred of thousands of dollars.

More recently, Global News ran three stories about this crisis. Numerous Vancouver newspapers have also covered the story. This crisis would have been hidden had it not been for an independent

student paper from another school investigating the matter. E
ven today, after Global News and the Vancouver papers have covered the issue, the DSU controlled paper has refused to mention it.
The contrast between an independent newspaper and a student union controlled newspaper is evident here.

McMaster students deserve the best student newspaper in the country. They deserve a free newspaper that can report about the MSU without the MSU being able to use their control of The Sil against the reporters. Simply put, we need a free press. To quote Albert Camus: “A free press can of course be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad.”

This brings me to the fifth and most important pillar; the citizenry. As students, we pay our taxes (MSU fees), and then a majority of us let the MSU spend it without even inquiring how it is spent. We have SRA members who were elected by fewer than 10 people. We had the third lowest turnout in McMaster history for our MSU Presidential election last academic year. We have not had a General Assembly in over a decade. In short, we have failed to do our job, which has allowed our student democracy to crumble into the state it is in today.

We need to get involved. We need to get informed and we need to get motivated. It is our money that is being spent. We have accepted things as they are. Sure, every once in a while, we get motivated on an issue. We hold the occasional rally, then we forget about the issue and nothing happens. We cannot keep doing this. We have to get involved and stay involved.

The first step is to find out where the students running for SRA stand on freedom of the press. Find out if they support making The Silhouette independent. Find out where they stand on issues such as banning the acceptance of corporate gifts by MSU officials. Find out what ideas they have to stop the massive loss of money each year by Quarters. Most of all, find out what they are going to do to make the MSU accountable to students.  Then get out and vote next week.

The second step is to get informed and come to your own opinion on the petitions that have been initiated regarding the MSU. Sign the ones you believe in, speak out against the ones you do not. Make your opinion known.
You are paying hundred of dollars in fees, something you do not get a choice about. You do, however, have a choice about getting involved and deciding how your money is spent.

The third step is attending the General Assembly. A date has not yet been set, no reform can happen until there is a SRA. Pay attention.

Let me leave you with this thought: no democracy can stand on one pillar. It cannot even stand on two. It can barely stand on three. We need to build the third and fourth pillars (we already have the fifth—you) in order to truly have democracy at McMaster. It is your choice; you have to pay for a bad democracy just as you would a good one. Actually you may pay less for a good one.