Loose Cannon: When neutrality isn't neutral
Thursday, October 8, 200922 Comments
Our student executive is the organization through which the Canadian Federation of Students makes its presence felt on campus.
During the 2007 provincial election, Ontario voters participated in a referendum on changing the way they elected members of parliament. For the first time in over 80 years, people were asked to choose between the current first-past-the-post system and mixed member proportional (MMP), a system devised by a citizens’ assembly convened by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government.
It was the first time in recent memory that any government had seriously attempted to reform the system, yet when the push for MMP failed, many of its proponents blamed McGuinty himself.
While the Premier didn’t have a problem with people sharing new ideas, he couldn’t bring himself to endorse those same ideas. Unlike other party leaders, McGuinty refused to take sides on the MMP debate, calling the decision “up to the people of Ontario.”
The Premier’s non-commitment was a sign of non-confidence, or at least that’s how opponents of the new system were able to spin it. His silence only added to the trepidation most voters felt about change, and MMP died an orphaned cause.
Whether a single voice would have swayed the outcome or not, the lesson is that a neutral position is not truly neutral – it favours the status quo.
There are some important differences between the 2007 referendum and the process currently underway at the University of Guelph, challenging our membership in the Canadian Federation of Students.
The petition requesting a dialogue on de-federation is an independent venture not endorsed by our Central Student Association. It’s also too early in the game to tell if a referendum will actually take place.
However, that doesn’t justify the position of neutrality and disengagement taken by our student executive. If anything, they should take the lead in deciding whether CFS membership is worthwhile.
Undergraduates at the University of Guelph pay $225,000 a year for their membership in the CFS. The CSA pays that money on behalf of the students through our student fees.
Our student executive is the organization through which the CFS makes its presence felt on campus. It has an executive member, External Commissioner Momina Mir, whose job it is to represent our campus at CFS events and promote CFS campaigns.
If a referendum does take place, the CSA and the CFS will each appoint two members to a referendum committee, tasked with overseeing the vote and deciding everything from the ballot question to the number and locations of polling stations.
More than anyone on campus, our student union leadership should have a well-formed opinion on whether to keep our CFS membership. It likely has an opinion already, but refuses to share it for fear of upsetting one group or another.
While it may not be popular to take sides, it is one of the burdens of leadership. The Board of Directors of the CSA, of which the executive is part, is elected to govern on behalf of students. It should not shirk from the task of making difficult decisions, and doing so on the record.
CSA Communications Commissioner Gavin Armstrong suggested in a press release that not taking a stance on de-federation was the only was to “represent all undergraduate students here at the University of Guelph.” If organizations responded to contentious issues by remaining neutral, no decisions of consequence would ever be made.
His comments also ignore the fact that those lobbying to leave the CFS are up against a lopsided opposition.
If history is any indication, the CFS will lobby heavily to keep the U of G in the fold. Armstrong estimated that student unions attempting to leave the federation were outspent 20-to-one in previous campaigns. During referendums held in British Columbia two years ago, campuses found themselves swarmed by CFS staff flown in from across the country.
To be frank, an independent push for de-federation does not have the resources necessary to stand up to the CFS’s veteran campaigners, who are experts at getting otherwise apathetic students out to vote on issues they may know nothing about. The CSA needs to recognize that a position of neutrality is exactly the same as endorsing the status quo.
There’s also the matter of the legal challenges that have befallen member unions that couldn’t agree on referendum rules with the CFS, or whose referendum results the federation considered invalid.
In a conversation, Armstrong hinted that the CSA didn’t want to get involved for fear of ending up in court.
“We don’t want to be sued. It’s not that we’re scared or anything,” he said, before going on to note that the CSA was well-aware of the CFS’s history of litigation. In politics, that kind of policy is called appeasement, not neutrality.
At best, the executive’s silence is a misguided attempt at impartiality that favours one side by default. At worst, it’s a cop-out that avoids real leadership. Students deserve better from their elected officials.
The Loose Cannon published in the Ontarion stated that undergrads pay $300,000 a year in fees to the CFS. The figure is actually $225,000. thecannon regrets the error.
Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.
The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.