This piece is in response to Anne Kessler's February 28 letter entitled "Vote NO: How the AMS’s undemocratic referendum question undermines student voices."
The question's content
Firstly, questions brought to referendum cannot be leading (suggesting one answer), or call for something illegal. The reason for this is simple: democratic values demand that students are not mislead by a prejudicial question. The requirement against an illegal question was already present, but this makes it clear that illegal questions cannot be run. The criticisms raised for this referendum question do not take issue with this change.
Secondly, Student Court will no longer decide whether a question meets the criteria – the responsibility will instead fall upon the AMS Council. The reason for this is that the Student Court is now, by and large, a useless institution. It hasn’t been filled in years, and was quickly filled at the end of the last school year but never used.
Student Court is a theoretically independent judicial body that is supposed to interpret the AMS’s rules without bias. I say theoretically because they are appointed by Council for one-year terms, and so it is possible they will be biased in favour of Council's opinions. However, history has actually shown the opposite: they are out of touch with student interests.
The AMS Council is the elected Student Board of Directors of the AMS. Council is the body to ensure our rules are followed. If a questionable referendum petition is submitted, we may be exposing ourselves to legal liability. With this revision, Council will have the discretion to consult legal advice and form a sub-committee as needed to properly evaluate the petition without having to turn to a faux-independent, semi-external, powerless body.
Response to criticism
There were three criticisms raised by Anne Kessler in a recent piece. The first is the idea of consultation while rewriting an improper question. I believe this is a very important issue, which is why I had Council direct the LPC to draft Code changes that will require seeking consultation with a submitter before rewording their question.
The second is the deadline for redrafting improper questions. This too belongs in Code, as Council unanimously agreed. It is not possible to predict exactly how long it will take for a question to be redrafted. Depending on the complexity of the issue, we may need to seek legal opinions and consult with HR, as well as with various student stakeholder groups. This is why I also had Council direct the LPC to draft changes establishing a timeline for question revision, to ensure transparency and accountability within the AMS.
These changes don't belong in the Bylaws, they belong in Code. The Bylaws set out the framework for the AMS, then Code fleshes it out into actual operating procedures. The Bylaws are set in stone, and changing them requires a referendum (like this one).
Since, depending on the complexity of the question and its flaws, the amount of time required to redraft a question can vary, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work here. Instead of imposing a fixed deadline of the longest amount of time we could possibly spend on redrafting a question, by putting the timeline in Code, we can plan for the average case. In emergency circumstances, Council would be able to override the deadline if two thirds of Councillors agree. This will ensure that redrafts will be done as quickly as possible, while also allowing for student consultation where appropriate. Most importantly, whenever possible, a question’s rewording will be done in time for it to be run with the Executive Election, without which most referenda fail for lack of quorum.
If the deadline were put in the Bylaws, Council could be forced to run a not-yet-fixed question, even if it’s horribly biased, discriminatory, or against the interests of students and the AMS, simply because redrafting took too long. This could potentially expose the AMS to liability, which all students could end up paying for.
Finally, Anne is concerned with this task falling upon the AMS Council. I strongly disagree with this criticism. These revisions will move the responsibility for rewording a question from the Student Court, whose positions are appointed and not elected, to the AMS’s Student Board of Directors, which has elected proportional representation from students of all faculties and programs.
As elected student representatives, Councillors are the only ones who can fairly speak on behalf of students. As well as the directors of the AMS, Councillors have a fiduciary duty to uphold the interests of our Student Society. Councillors are the only ones who should be tasked with this duty, and this is nothing new, as Councillors can already overrule the Student Court in the current rules.
These revisions remove the middleman. If a questionable referendum petition is submitted, Council will have the discretion to consult legal advice and form a sub-committee as needed to properly evaluate it, without having to turn to a quasi-external powerless body, or being constrained by an inflexible limit that will either be too generous on simple questions, or too onerous on difficult ones.
Students are elected to Council to represent their constituencies in the governance of the AMS. Students should have confidence in their representatives, or they should petition for their removal. What students should not do is tie the hands of their own Society, potentially forcing them to run a discriminatory or terribly biased referendum question and harming all students’ wallets due to an inflexible time limit.
This is a question that had valid criticisms, which were addressed. That is why it is the only question on this ballot to have been unanimously approved and endorsed by the elected student representatives without a single abstention. Not even the UPass referendum had this level of support.
This is a question supporting democratic values and responsible governance, and has multi-partisan support from across the board. I urge you to vote Yes on this question and the other five endorsed by Council.
Benjamin Israel is a JD Candidate at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC, and represents the Law Constituency on the AMS Council. He is also the Chair of the AMS Legislative Procedures Committee. Israel would like to stress that the opinions herein are his own, and that he is not speaking on behalf of the Allard Law Students’ Society, the Legislative Procedures Committee, or the AMS.