UMSU SGM: James Bashford’s responses to our questions
This article contains James Bashford’s full responses to the questions we put to him, for our article UMSU SGM: Democracy in action?.
1. What were the margins on each motion? (i.e., how many votes for/against/abstaining)
Margins aren’t usually recorded for votes at an SGM. A special resolution requires a 75% majority to pass but usually it’s quite clear if votes have passed or failed from a show of hands so it’s not necessary to actually count the votes. This was certainly the case for most of the motions at Tuesday’s SGM. The margin was less clear on motions 2 and 4, where I had to call the vote multiple times to take a count and establish if there was a sufficient majority in favour.
2. The principal thrust of the criticism directed at this process is that it’s not especially democratic: another event is being held at the same time & place and the SGM just piggybacks off that. How would you respond to that? Below are some quotes we have indicative of this view.
“It just seems that no one cares. The union knows that no one cares. And then they take advantage of that.”
“The Union needs more transparency, more engagement – it needs to spruik. It needs a defined role – a ‘get involved in student politics committee’.”
We managed to get the University to email every single student about the SGM (which has not been done in memory for any other SGM or AGM) and each of the changes was endorsed beforehand by Students’ Council which is elected by thousands of students. I agree there’s always more we can do, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest we don’t care or didn’t try. We actually care a hell of a lot and it can be quite dispiriting as a student rep to have that constantly dismissed. I’ve made it easier for students to subscribe to Students’ Council emails on the UMSU website to make it more transparent and now that noticeboards don’t have to be used for agenda papers that space can be used to put up more information about who student reps are, how they can be contacted and how UMSU operates. I’m all for more transparency, and if anybody has ideas for what else I could do I’m very open to suggestions!
As for the way SGMs themselves are run, in the past UMSU tried having standalone SGMs (the last time this was tried was in 2009) but they repeatedly failed to reach quorum. You could try to reduce the threshold but that would make it far too easy for unscrupulous changes to get through. Having such a high quorum requirement that means general meetings have to be held in public in front of ordinary students is an important check and balance on the power of elected reps.
3. Most (> 50%) of the people who were voting on motions seemed to us to be Students’ Councillors (OBs included), or people who’d already been involved through e.g. Constitutional Working Group. Do you think UMSU has a responsibility to engage more students in the process? Again, a few quotes we’ve got you might want to respond to:
“Students Council and UMSU more generally are seen as a self-serving body that acts separate to the student body.”
“[the changes were hashed out by] 20 people around the table, at a council meeting no doubt.”
We tried a lot of things to get more students to turn out to this SGM. For the first time in at least several years we got the university to issue an all student email about a general meeting, we had posters, we got it into the newsletters. Clearly that didn’t lead to as many students getting involved as we’d like so next time we’ll have to do more.
Of course it’s important for UMSU to engage as many students as possible in everything it does, but there’ll always be critics. As I explain below these changes were extensively discussed for almost a year and in some cases had very diverse engagement from a lot of students with otherwise little involvement.
4. Can you run us through the process by which the changes came to the SGM? In particular, how did the [Constitutional Working Group] engage students, other than through meetings?
Each of the changes from Tuesday’s SGM were developed under last year’s General Secretary, Hana Dalton. A Constitutional Working Group was established in mid-semester 1 last year which developed these changes, which were also informed by Office Bearer meetings throughout the year (especially proposals around honoraria). Hana also took an approach of scheduling meetings to focus on one specific issue each meeting to try to deal with the many different streams of changes needed.
Initially, most of the student engagement with the CWG was from students already involved in UMSU (as is often the case with these sorts of things). However, quite a lot of new engagement came from the Queer Department, thanks especially to the initiative of Queer Officer Andrea Gavran. Andrea systematically went through the constitution to identify issues for their constituency, engaged their collectives in developing changes to address these issues and then brought collective members to the CWG to directly engage in the progress.
There ultimately wasn’t time for all changes to be finalised into proposals last year or for an SGM to consider the proposals that were finalised. Hana created a document summarising the finalised changes which was what I then presented to Council to call for an SGM. Students’ Council doesn’t need to endorse constitutional changes for them to be implemented, but I think this a good additional step to take. Council has a diverse membership and is specifically elected for the purpose of representing the wider student body, so it’s a powerful test of support for any proposed change. This was clearly reflected in the results of the SGM. Each motion that was unanimously supported by council passed at the SGM because they had consensus support. The media officer honoraria changes, on the other hand, did not have consensus support at council and subsequently did not pass the SGM.
5. There’s another CWG at the moment: can you tell us a little bit about that?
The current CWG was established by a direction from Students’ Council several weeks ago. We’ve been directed specifically to explore the potential for a People of Colour Department, increasing Affirmative Action thresholds and reforming student office bearer honoraria. These three topics were discussed extensively but unresolved in last year’s CWG so we’ve picked up where we left off. We’ve only had 2 meetings so far but already we’ve found plenty of additional areas we’d like to look at as well from a greater emphasis on environmental ethics to general housekeeping and updating of anachronisms.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from the CWG last year and the process that led to the SGM. It’s very difficult to engage people in a process as seemingly boring as amending a 56 page constitution, but we (and I) need to be proactive about it. It’s been disappointing that more people haven’t chosen to come to CWG meetings so far this year but some of the work being done is really promising. Like Andrea last year, Adriana Mells has established a departmental CWG for the Wom*n’s Department specifically to look at changes relevant to women students while the Welfare Officers and People of Colour Collective who have taken the lead on developing proposals around People of Colour. I think this shows the CWG is most effective when people buy in to the process from across UMSU departments. Each department has its own collective and networks and these will be vital to getting broader input into changes.
6. Anything else you’d like to say?
I think the CWG process is going well. Constitutional change is difficult, its mundane and I don’t expect to be able to please all the critics but we know there’s always more to be done to improve. If anybody has suggestions, we’d really love to hear it and get more input – my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, my phone number is 83446973 and my office is Union House and I’m more than happy for people to come in and make suggestions, ask questions or even just vent!