In Great Debate, presidential candidates clash over incumbents’ performance and accountability

Sparks flew at a final AMS presidential debate defined by issues of accountability and the performance of sitting executives.

Candidates Kuol Akuechbeny, Stuart Clarke, Chris Hakim, Jas Kullar and Spencer Latu met again at Friday’s Great Debate to discuss diversity, AMS employees’ right to unionize and their idea of a typical day as AMS president.

But much of the debate’s highlights came from open periods, which was dominated by newcomer Kullar taking shots at Hakim’s track record as current AMS VP Administration.

The debate kicked off with a discussion about how the candidates — who are all men — would engage with women and non-binary members in the AMS’s decision-making process. Candidates largely offered generic proposal about student engagement as the general solution — though some did give more targeted approaches.

Hakim advocated for the development of an AMS equity and inclusion framework to better include different groups systemically.

“We need to understand who the AMS includes and who the AMS hires,” he said. “It isn’t just about election … it’s the systemic structure that the AMS needs to review.”

Latu said he would fight for better access to gender neutral washrooms and organize equity-based town halls.

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['auto'] Salomon Micko Benrimoh

Akuechbeny reiterated his platform of expanding AMS Council to include voting seats for more groups on campus.

In the open period, Hakim said Clarke’s goal to phase out the VP Administration role and replace it with a VP Student Life & Equity was “not necessarily the right approach.” Hakim said Clarke never consulted him on the proposed change despite his current role as VP Administration, while pointing out that the change would require additional funding and extensive bylaw changes.

Kullar jumped in the middle of Hakim’s speech to criticize his role in the attempted cut of the Sexual Assault Support Centre’s (SASC) support services last summer and his recent penalty for using his role as VP Admin to access private Clubhouse email addresses for campaigning.

“Do these actions look like something a good and honest leader would do?” Kullar said.

“I don’t really appreciate the ad hominem,” Chris responded, adding that he recognized the mistakes he made and would use them to better support AMS executives.

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['auto'] Zubair Hirji

Clarke did not have time to respond to Hakim’s criticism.

On the topic of unionization — a timely topic given the ongoing collective bargaining process for SASC support workers — all candidates said they support employees’ right to unionize.

Latu added that the AMS should prioritize workers’ conditions over business profits. But Akuechbeny, the current AMS VP Finance, disagreed with that characterization.

“The AMS never prioritizes profit over anything that benefits students or services,” said Akuechbeny. He added that business contributions go toward services and saving costs for students.

Hakim highlighted the work he is doing with the society’s standalone sexual violence policy draft to better support AMS staff.

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['auto'] Zubair Hirji

When asked about what a typical day would look like for them as AMS president, most candidates brought up similar talking points of consulting students and supporting other executives.

“If we don't have a united front, we're not effective and you've wasted your entire year,” Clarke said. He added that he would also push for a comprehensive review of code, which just happened this year through the AMS Governance Committee.

Besides this common response, Akuechbeny said he wants to reach out to constituencies to fill vacant seats on AMS Council and strengthen relationships with the Graduate Student Society and UBC Board of Governors.

In this question’s open debate, Kullar once again blasted Hakim’s emphasis on consultation by pointing out his involvement with the attempted cut to SASC’s support services.

Hakim responded by apologizing for the decisions around SASC, acknowledging that “it hurt survivors.” He added that he has been working with the Centre to expand sexual violence prevention training and improve understanding of UBC’s sexual assault policy.

Open field

Candidates ended their debate by fielding questions from the audience.

Among them, some topics — like the desire to create a voting seat for Indigenous students on AMS Council and fossil fuel divestment — were already discussed at the first presidential debate.

But a new question asked how the new president would bridge the divide within AMS Council, which has often led to long and tense yet unproductive meetings.

Hakim responded that he has served as both an AMS councillor and an executive so he would have the experience to build up relationships within the Council. He also said the current president did not host a proper councillor orientation this year.

After the debate, AMS President Marium Hamid told The Ubyssey that there were in fact two orientations hosted — one at the beginning of summer and one in September.

"The turnout was not as great and going forward we have made a comprehensive plan for next year,” she said.

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['auto'] Salomon Micko Benrimoh

Rodney Little Mustache — a mature student who is a member of the Piikani Nation of the Niitsitapi confederacy and one of last year’s AMS presidential candidates — closed out the debate by pointing to the lack of Indigenous representation in discussions on Indigenous issues.

Clarke criticized the lack of Indigenous representation in VP External Cristina Ilnitchi’s lobbying trip to Ottawa. He added that he would want to include Elders at Council meetings and the AMS annual general meeting.

But overall, candidates who had time to speak struggled to offer a clear answer to Little Mustache, who condemned the AMS’s action on Indigenous issues without consulting Indigenous peoples.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Kullar said.

“It’s happening,” Little Mustache shot back.

Voting will run between March 11 and 15.