SSMU Presidential Elections 2014 Press Debate: Putting the Student back in SSMU

Candidates running for president in the upcoming 2014 SSMU elections took part in SSMU’s first ‘Press Debates’ on Tuesday, March 11th  in the New Residence Ballroom. In a session of just under two hours, candidates had the opportunity to present themselves, answer press questions, and debate their platforms.

Of the four students running for SSMU presidency this year– Courtney Ayukawa, Aaron Friedland, Austin Johnson and Tariq Khan– three were present at the event. Friedland was unable to attend the Press Debate, having received a concussion and been hospitalised that morning. A spokesperson apologised on his behalf, saying he would schedule interviews in the coming days. The format of the debates was altered in lieu of this, but without much detriment.

The session began with one-minute introductory statements from each candidate, after which the president-hopefuls responded to questions from the McGill ‘press’.

After an initial round of general questions, candidates engaged in short paired debates. Subsequently, non-press audience members were invited to ask questions. The debates were streamed live online, allowing students not physically present to watch the session and to pose questions.

Representatives from the McGill Daily, Le Délit, and the McGill Tribune were present, as well as The Bull & Bear. There were approximately 20 students present at the debate, most of whom were members of the press.

Numerous issues were raised during the debate, ranging from student employment to SSMU’s role in encouraging sustainability. Appropriately (particularly in light of low attendance at the debate) the question of increasing student political engagement was given the most attention.

Who’s Society?

The need to increase student political engagement with SSMU was raised both in the candidates’ political platforms, and by questions from the press.

Khan stressed the need to “take SSMU back to the students.” His methods for achieving this goal include holding office hours in public spaces, as well as working with Inter-Rez Council (IRC) and the First Year Committee to encourage involvement early in students’ careers.

Ayukawa, having had experience with First Year students through her role as an RVC Floor Fellow, also proposed ways in which First Years might become more involved in student politics. Ayukawa stated her aim of “increasing accessibility to things that provide opportunities.” For example, the aim of Activities Night  is to encourage more students to become involved; however, many students currently find the event to be overwhelming, and accessibility for students in wheelchairs could be greatly improved.

She also stated that whilst “there are strong legions of community” in the McGill student body, these are undermined because “they are not linked.” Ayukawa sees herself as capable of fostering interconnectedness between smaller groups within the McGill community.

In the same vein, Johnson identified improving student engagement as one of his primary aims.  He discussed social media as a potential tool for increasing the community’s awareness of student body politics. Johnson’s plans include the creation of a micro-blog informing students of the president’s activities, as well as a personal twitter feed.

Clearly political participation is a pertinent topic for SSMU: especially considering the difficulty SSMU has faced in ensuring that General Assemblies meet quorum.  Over the past year, a number of GAs have failed to meet quorum (i.e. not enough students present), preventing SSMU from making official and binding decisions at GAs.

Johnson spoke about measures to improve GA attendance, such as “making councillors accountable for being at GAs” and “making sure they are promoting it at grassroot level.”

Candidates Clash

During the debates, differences among the candidates’ political priorities were made evident. When debating with Johnson, Khan expressed reservations about Johnson’s lack of political experience. Johnson rebutted: “While I don’t have every last word of the by-laws, the constitution and all our other policies memorised, I have read every single word and I take them all very seriously.” He also stated that his previous removal from politics would actually help him acquire “a very professional, and very neutral political stance.”

In reply, Johnson questioned Khan about the financial feasibility of his employment and sustainability projects, saying that they seemed to “imply very large costs.” Khan responded that this could partly be resolved through his promotion of student entrepreneurship. Additionally, he emphasized that his implementation of an energy efficiency program would save money in the long term.

Johnson addressed Ayukawa’s plans to combine equity, sustainability and mental health policies under one portfolio. He stated that he did not necessarily disagree with the plan, but questioned its feasibility. Ayukawa subsequently argued that an important link already exists between these three areas, stating “It is feasible because of how implicitly interconnected they are.”

While student engagement seems a universal theme, candidates differ on a number of key issues, including academics, sustainability, and student health. For more information regarding the candidates’ political platforms, visit: http://bullandbearmcgill.com/elections/