Editorial: The referendum conundrum

Referendums have always been the most direct way for students to change policy the way they see fit. However, last week the Students’ Union passed measures that will give them more power over which questions get on the ballot.

Before, the SU could play around with a question’s wording, but had no say on whether the question actually got voted on. And they shouldn’t.

In the past, most referendum questions on University of Calgary ballots have been about student fees and levy increases. Even the Gauntlet can credit last year’s ballot for some much-needed funds.

There’s only ever been one ballot that the SU vehemently disagreed with. In 2003, the Calgary Public Interest Research Group tried to ask for a $1 levy, but the question never made it to the polls. The SU argued that the group wouldn’t benefit enough students.

Students are smart enough to realize when a cost won’t benefit them. They can choose for themselves not to pay into the cause and a majority will likely vote “No” for such a levy. If they really disagreed, students could even apply for SU funding to run a “No” campaign.

The SU’s reasoning for their new policy is weak. They said that the cost of running CanVote is huge and therefore hosting a referendum question in the middle of a semester could put them in debt. The SU is broke, that much is the truth. In the past few months they’ve let go of six employees and turned to Quality Money, funded by tuition, to pay for a major event. But that doesn’t stop them from saying that a vote can only be held during regular elections. Most students would appreciate that anyways, as many already choose not to vote twice a year. The SU doesn’t need to say what goes, just when.

The SU also argued that having three referendum questions on one ballot, like in 2008’s election, was ineffective. They said that students faced with so many levy increases at once never vote to pass them all anyways. But again, isn’t that something for students to decide? SU officials are elected to represent students, but that doesn’t mean they can choose which are the most pressing questions to be on the ballot.

And let’s not forget the most obvious concern: should a group of students ever want to lower SU fees or make executive paycheques public, something common among other representative politicians, the SU will now be able to reject the question. Students can put a question through by petition after collecting signatures from five per cent of undergraduate students. That’s over 600 signatures, almost half the students that actually bothered voting last time around. The SU is making it unnecessarily difficult for students to get involved in changing its direction.

The SU deemed its 13.5 per cent voter turnout a success this past election. Having polls set up more often won’t increase that number, but neither will cutting out student voices. The SU needs to put more trust in students — they will vote against a question that doesn’t benefit them. If they want students more involved, as they have claimed, this is the wrong way to do it.

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