Presidential candidates largely agree on issues, amidst tension between newcomers and incumbents

Splintered along a divide between current executives and newcomers, the five AMS presidential candidates largely shared similar policy responses in their first showdown.

On Tuesday, presidential hopefuls Kuol Akuechbeny, Stuart Clarke, Chris Hakim, Jas Kullar and Spencer Latu debated Indigenous reconciliation, controversial speakers on campus, transparency and responses to climate change.

Newcomers Clarke, Kullar and Latu agreed that much more needs to be done on Indigenous reconciliation at the AMS.

Current VP Administration Hakim said the society has apologized for sluggish efforts to advance reconciliation, but acknowledged the process shouldn’t stop there. He said he has worked to support the recently formed AMS Indigenous committee as a part of his portfolio.

As a result, candidates mainly advocated for a common goal of creating a voting seat for the Indigenous committee on AMS Council.

“Having a direct line to these people would be a great way to start with the reconciliation process,” said Kullar, a second-year biochemistry student.

Latu, a fourth-year history student, also stressed the need to take a “more intersectional approach” to supporting Indigenous peoples beyond just AMS Council, such as supporting the Wet'suwet'en First Nation’s pushback against pipeline construction over its land.

Responding to controversial speakers on campus

The second question about controversial speakers on campus drew out the most difference in candidates’ responses.

In October, the AMS’s condemnation of hardline conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro’s visit to campus won both support and criticism. The society said it was prioritizing student wellbeing, while detractors said it was stifling free speech.

Akuechbeny, current AMS VP Finance, said the society should have to consult Council before taking a position on controversial speakers. In Shapiro’s case, it was only the society’s advocacy committee that was consulted.

He added that creating voting seats on Council for groups like Indigenous students would help expand the conversation around this topic.

Following a dig about the high prices of tickets for the Shapiro talk, fourth-year integrated science student Clarke said the executives have a responsibility to discuss with Council and make statements in these cases.

Hakim emphasized the importance of taking “genuine steps” to keep students and staff feel safe before detailing his work on the AMS’s standalone sexual violence policy draft.

Kullar believes that groups should be given a platform unless they incite violence.

“If they do not push for violence, I feel as though they should be given a platform,” he said. “But they should also be given criticisms that should be open to the public … and hold them responsible for their words.”

Latu said the AMS should question why UBC allowed far-right speakers to speak on campus in the first place, referencing an event with Stefan Molyneux — a podcaster who has espoused white supremacist views — that was slated to occur on campus until recently.

“We need to take a critical look and have conversations amongst ourselves about what is tolerable in our society, and I think that needs to be reflected in AMS policy,” he said.

Maintaining transparency

When it came to transparency, incumbents highlighted their current work as a badge of achievement. But newcomers had a negative view about the society’s transparency.

“If we listen to students about what they want, transparency wouldn’t be an issue,” Kullar said. “Transparency has not been transparent in the past.”

Clarke said he wants to host more town halls and present more information about AMS services.

Latu criticized a proposal from the AMS governance committee that would limit access to some AMS documents. Hakim and Akuechbeny responded that they did not propose the bylaw change and stressed their ability to consult students.

Responding to climate change

The showdown ended with a question from the audience about how to combat climate change — in response, most candidates pointed toward pushing for UBC to divest from fossil fuels.

Akuechbeny touted his accomplishment of divesting the AMS’s investment policy from fossil fuels last year, adding that the portfolio has actually performed better following the change.

Latu agreed with the push for divestment but stressed that the AMS should do more, calling climate change “an existential threat.”

“We all know what the wildfire smoke is like and we know the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report,” he said. “Although we should pressure UBC, we need to think bigger and organize student movements and get the AMS at the forefront of that.”

Clarke diverged from the group to advocate for giving the Associate VP Sustainability more power by taking the position out of the VP Administration portfolio and creating an executive seat for the position instead.

The five presidential hopefuls will meet again for the Great Debate. Also hosted by The Ubyssey, the second showdown will take place on Friday, March 1 from 4 to 9 p.m. in the Nest’s atrium.