Opinion: Omnibus referenda restrict student choice

Marie Erikson (she/her) is a third-year student in the philosophy honours program and a Staff Writer at The Ubyssey.

In a representative democracy, it is often impossible to vote in a way that entirely matches our views. Be it a federal or AMS election, voting for a candidate often means accepting that some of their positions contradict our own. Candidates are people, each with a myriad of opinions, and we can not expect one person out of a few to have an identical worldview. 

Many of us, however, still vote on the grounds that voting for the best but imperfect candidate is better than staying silent. 

Enter referendums: a chance to provide a clear answer to a specific issue. Unlike voting for representatives, referenda allow us to be precise in our voting, ideally leading to a decision that more accurately reflects the voices of the people. 

But one proposed AMS referendum this year nearly stole our clear voices.

Referendum question 2, drafted by anonymous organizers and promoted by the resource group UBC Social Justice Centre, among other groups, would have affected AMS investments and Food Bank access and called for UBC to take a particular stance on the Israel-Palestine war. Demands to support Palestine would also have been sent to UBC from its student body.

AMS Council rejected the referendum during its February 28 meeting.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the student body proposing and voting on topics relevant to UBC and the AMS. In my view, the problem lies in that this referendum unnecessarily forced students into an all-or-nothing position. 

A student, for example, may want the AMS to separate from RBC but keep their food bank’s focus on students, or vice versa. Either combination of views makes sense considering that expanding food bank access would require more financial investment into the program, an additional difficult process was the AMS to reject a major sponsorship while running a deficit. The referendum, however, would have driven that student to abandon one of their goals for the AMS or accept contradictory courses of action.

Students would not only have been forced to choose between their views on RBC, the AMS Food Bank, and Palestine; the referendum’s actions regarding Palestine were too broad to expect an individual to come close to fully agreeing or disagreeing. It is possible to want Jewish students to have a dedicated space on campus through Hillel BC while opposing the Israeli military’s actions.  It is further possible to hold these views and want UBC to provide resources for affected groups while disliking how the referendum requires a boycott of unspecified organizations.

It’s also possible to support protecting free speech but disagree that UBC should promote a particular view on the war. Even if provisions regarding RBC and the AMS Food Bank were excluded from this referendum, students on the spectrum between extreme Israeli or Palestinian support wouldn’t have been accurately represented by their votes. 

None of this is to say that past referenda were perfect examples of breadth versus specificity. AMS bylaw changes have been decided through one referendum in the past two years, and a 2022 fee reduction referendum also included a change to require that all opt-outs be digital. Conversely, the AMS Council was rightfully criticized for separating gender-affirming care from its referendum on health insurance fee changes. But, the previous broad referenda did not egregiously combine distinct and controversial issues into a yes or no question. 

Our broader society has enough instances of harshly pushing people onto one ideological side or another. Even if the AMS Council rejected this referendum for separate reasons, we should be grateful that we are not unnecessarily compelled to abandon our values. 

While some may suggest that we add a bylaw restricting such referenda, I doubt that it would be possible to capture the nuance of the problem. Referenda with a few bylaw amendments tend to be widely supported, and it would be easier to encourage already hesitant students to vote on a briefer set of options. Thus, restricting referenda to a single item would unnecessarily make the process less efficient.

It is then on us as students and AMS members to oppose omnibus referenda and support the union’s democratic process. The best way is to only propose clear referenda on distinct issues. When these anti-democratic proposals come forward again, we should not sign petitions or vote for such referenda, no matter how much we support their ideas. Better still, we should propose separate referenda for issues raised in omnibus proposals.

Individuals shouldn’t have to think about enforcing the rules of democracy in student elections. But like with government elections, only supporting respectful and democratic initiatives will demonstrate that rule-breakers can’t succeed in our system.

This is an opinion article. It reflects only the author's views and does not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Have something to say about what you just read? Contribute to the conversation and send a letter to the editor in response or your own submission at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.