working hard to waste your influence

I’ve just received a message as part of the External Policy Committee, which is tasked with crafting the policies and recommending a course of implementation for the external affairs of the AMS. This particular message contained a motion, to be debated at the next meeting of Council, that belongs to a class that tends to be frivolous, foolish, and, as the title of my post might indicate, a complete waste of society resources.

The motion reads as follows:

Whereas students in Iran are involved in the protests following the June 12 Presidential Elections;
Whereas security forces in Iran stormed the dormitories, and attacked and arrested students; and
Whereas the raid on the Tehran University resulted in the resignation of over 120 lecturers,

Therefore, be it resolved that the AMS condemn the invasion of a learning space; and
Be it further resolved that the AMS support Iranian students and their right to academic freedom.

I have a number of problems with this motion, both on a principled level, in terms of what the mandate of a student society should be, on an operative level, pertaining to how the society apportions its resources, and on a more specific level, based on the potential impact of the motion on the situation.


I think that this part of my argument can be summed up by saying that the AMS should not have a foreign policy. I think that there are a number of things that the AMS can speak on with authority, but they should, in every case, effect, either in a direct fashion or one step removed, the general lives of our students. Now, the situation in Iran may have implications on ‘students’, but they are not the ones that grant the AMS it’s mandate, and they are not the ones who rely on us to lobby for them.

There is a great article on this very subject that was just posted at Macleans, one which I almost totally agree with, written by Jeff Rybak. The actions of the AMS should be limited to areas where we are able to speak on behalf of our members as students, which is distinct from speaking on behalf of our members as a group of individuals.

Passing motions of principle such as this one is lazy, as it just requires us to raise our hands and then pat ourselves on the back for really making a difference in the world. This, however, is not accurate – we are simply wasting time. Passing a motion like this one is unworthy of the people who elected us, the people who are relying on us to ensure that their lives as students are as good as they can be.


The motion resolves that we “support Iranian students and their right to academic freedom”, and the first thing that comes to mind is “How?”. While I personally support the rights to academic freedom of anybody, anywhere, I can’t help but think that the AMS isn’t going to make so much as a ripple in the grand scheme of things. If it really is just a motion, I really doubt that the Ayatollah is reading our minutes, and even if he is, I can’t really see him thinking “Oh, no, the AMS of UBC-Vancouver is against what I’ve been doing. I’d better stop oppressing my people now.”

In the event that we are going to do something, I have to wonder what that is? Will the AMS be sending SafeWalk Stormtroopers to defend Iranian student’s rights to congregation and free association? Will we merely be sending a letter? One way or the other, I can’t see us having any kind of impact that would be proportionate to the resources that we’d expend taking action.

We are condemning the actions of a regime that really could care less about what we think. Now, irregardless of what Iran’s reaction is going to be to this (nothing, but more on that later), this has a deleterious effect on what we can do as a student society. We should save our condemnations for those who will listen and be moved by them. These valid and crucial condemnations will have less of an impact when the people we are condemning can look at the other resolutions and say “Look, they do this all the time, it’s not like it ever makes a difference. We can go ahead and ignore them.”, which could very well be catastrophic.

Working on behalf of our students is an excruciating battle. We have to fight for every inch of ground that we gain, and it requires a massive amount of effort to gain even the tiniest concession from the provincial government or the university administration. We are funded by students, and I think that we can at least show them the respect of ensuring that their money is being used in a fashion that will have a meaningful impact on their lives.


While I think that the eventual outcome of this motion’s passage will probably be nonexistent, there is the off chance that someone will pay attention. In this instance, I would expect that we would do more harm than good. Before we pass this motion, we have to ask ourselves ‘should we?’, which Ron Paul covers rather effectively in this article, as well as ‘what would happen if we did?’, which is perhaps the lesser of the two questions, but still vital.

The Iranian regime has been consistently claiming that foreign media, governments and organizations are fomenting dissent, and are using this as an excuse to put down a popular democratic movement. This is, however, not really happening. As unlikely as it is, I would not want this resolution, from the largest student society in one of the most secular and prosperous countries in the world, to be used as a pretext for the violation of Iranian rights.

I (or, as will probably be the case, my proxy) will be voting against this resolution. It is not within our mandate, and is not en effective or justifiable use of AMS time, money and influence.


14 Responses to “working hard to waste your influence”

  1. 1 Pierce
    July 2, 2009 at 2:45 pm


    I know you’re in Calgary all summer, but there have been countless protests and rallies at the SUB and AMS elected members have taken part. The point of the student government is to reflect the voices and concerns of the students. You were elected to represent students of UBC. The university student body of which you are suppose to represent, has a strong Iranian exchange and Iranian-Canadian presence. To not recognize your own fellow students at this time, is a failure of what your mandate as a Councillor is in representing students. For example, if something horrific happened in Alberta, and you brought up a motion saying something to the same effect of ‘our thoughts are with Alberta’ would you be writing the same outrageous post? I doubt it. Matt, you’re armchair quarterback parroting is usually amusing, but this time it is rather disingenuous.

  2. 2 radicalbeer
    July 2, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    I think we have a bit of a difference of opinion here. You state that “The point of the student government is to reflect the voices and concerns of the students.” I disagree. The point of a student government is to advocate for the issues that effect the lives of our students as students. To do otherwise is cheap exploitation of genuine outrage.

    If elected members want to take a stand on something related to an issues that is not within their mandate as a member of Council, that’s their right, so long as they are not doing it during work hours.

    On another note, if something horrible happened in Alberta, or, for that matter, to anywhere else that I feel I have a connection to, I would do what people are doing for Iran now – protest, rally, and otherwise work to fix it. I would not, however, ask the Student Society to do that for me, as their job is something different. I would find a group who’s mandate it is to act on this, and work with them. We don’t ask, nor do we expect, groups for whom student issues are not within their mandate, such as, for example, the World Wildlife Fund, to lobby on student loans, teaching quality or student engagement. It shouldn’t be surprising that the relationship goes both ways.

  3. 3 Pierce
    July 2, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Nice removal from the front page. What are you afraid of, a little dissent? A blog is a blog, you should expect criticism and rebuttal, if not get out of blogging. If you want to be autocratic, I would advise you to disable comments and remove yourself from VFM…

    “The point of a student government is to advocate for the issues that effect the lives of our students as students.”

    Which is exactly the intent of this motion. There are students on this campus who are going back to Iran in the coming weeks or are already in the country. Essentially you’re saying these students are not important to us once they leave Electoral A. Students are students no matter where they happen to live, to segregate and divide one group of students over another is wrong.

    If you believe the Student Union or ‘society’ should not have a foreign policy agenda, then the Goddess of Democracy statue, of which has been draped in green cloth, spray painted with “Lies!” and mourned in the past months while you’ve been away, must be removed. You are contradicting yourself again. If you believe in not having a foreign policy stance, the statue must go, period. If you say no to removing the statue on campus that unites all students from all nations together as one, then you believe in a foreign policy.

    You’ve got the mandate correct, but the current structure of the AMS, the AMS culture on campus, and your actions say another. To advocate, means to drop political alliances at the door once you walk through that Council Chamber. This is where you go wrong in ‘advocating’ as your track record shows that the AMS works against and not for the students.

    For example, advocating for and on the behalf of the students means publicly supporting lower tuition fees, more funding, more transit, more housing, more democracy in the AMS and on campus, having a voice in Ottawa, Victoria and beyond and disregarding your political affiliation. This is what the students elected you to uphold, there values and visions of a better university experience for them and future generations. For example, what was your true motivation for voting to stop Election leaflets? Some councillors said it ‘wasn’t something the AMS should do’ well than what should it do? Sit around and play ring around the rosy? You’re dealing with people’s lives with every decision you make, this isn’t just fun and games.

    We’re the biggest student union or ‘society’ in Canada I am told and you’ve been in the halls of the SUB for 5yrs, what have you done to improve the lives of students? Do you even talk to your fellow classmates and ask why don’t you vote in the elections? Why don’t you get involved? As a representative, and as someone who preaches advocacy and participation, that is your main job.

    If you talked to students, regular ones who don’t follow VFM, Ubyssey etc. You would begin to realize why participation is so low here and the students being overall apathetic. There are groups on the campus who rail against the University as it being evil, the University taking away the fun! War on fun! etc. Well, has anyone really thought ‘hmm you know, maybe it is us? Maybe we are the problem?’

    For all the hot air about fighting for students rights on campus, I’ve seen no results. University power structures are easy to bend if you have the right people representing the students and know which buttons to push and have a vision of what the students want. In that regard, lobbying is rather a simple process, and as students who actually keep this place running, we’ve always had the advantage, the ultimate trump card if you will, but these past years looking through the UBC Archives, it seems the students and the AMS stopped caring around the beginning of this decade. I’ve always stated the most political people on this campus don’t speak English, and this year that notion was confirmed.

    “I would find a group who’s mandate it is to act on this, and work with them.”

    Which is the AMS. ‘Students for Students’ remember? That slate that was around when the AMS was actually an organization that helped ‘students for students.’

    “If elected members want to take a stand on something related to an issues that is not within their mandate as a member of Council, that’s their right, so long as they are not doing it during work hours.”

    Why should it matter during work hours and mandate? Where does your BC Liberal affiliations end and your student work begin? Working as a politician is a 24hr job, therefore you’re always on the ‘job’. A good example of you breaking your own mandate according to your words would have been your editorial on tuition in the Ubyssey, voting to stop the leaflets etc.
    Every decision, every thought, every word you speak whether in public to the media, or on a blog, should have the students in mind and not your own point of view. Your actions contradict your talk. I know this is asking for a lot, but nobody said politics was fun or an easy job. Remember, you represent the international student who worries if its his or her last day in Vancouver due to the economy back home, Joe Smith who has to do two jobs just to get by, the student in class who struggles with English, and the girl who worries about her grades and her country falling apart at home.

    If you don’t have a vision of where to take this university from student prospective, and have the willingness to go through with the vision, then this isn’t your field. Likewise for political aspirations for post-university, you must be able form a vision of where to take the city/province/country etc or you don’t belong in politics. That is the real mandate, advocacy with vision, goal and execution. What we’re doing now chatting on computers on a blog takes no effort. Actions are louder than words when it comes to advocacy and results. So far, there’s a lot left to be desired.

    It’s time we in the political chattering class of UBC take an honest look in the mirror. The big elephant in the room is not Stephen Toope or the mysterious BoG or the RCMP. Yes, they do run things around here, but we’ve let them. This past decade participation, ‘fun’, on campus events have diminished not because the university cracked down, but that the people in power decided to stop it, or not fight it. Where’s the advocacy in that?

  4. 4 radicalbeer
    July 2, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Removal from the front page of what, exactly? Hold your horses on the confrontation – I’m happy to debate these policies with anyone, and it’s best to do it over beers.

    I believe what I believe, and I will stand by it in actions and advocacy. It was in my platform, and was what people voted for. The fact that some people disagree with me is, in my opinion, why AMS Council exists. We can share opinions, and engage in respectful debate, and come to a conclusion. To betray my beliefs would be to betray the people who voted for me. The fact that you disagree with me does not mean that I’m not working for students, it’s that I think there are better means to an end.

    You’re right in saying that, as a representative, I’m always on the job. I’m never going to lie about what I believe, and I’m not going to stop pushing an agenda that I think will help improve the lives of students – if that means halting the distribution of leaflets that blatantly contradicted AMS policy or were partisan (something that has to be stopped, as it damages our ability to lobby the government if the party we didn’t endorse wins), or writing to the Ubyssey (which, if you had read past the headline, was not about tuition, but rather about student quality and the then upcoming election), or advocating for issues within a party structure, I will do it. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do at the AMS.

    Dismissing people because you disagree with your policies does not encourage respectful debate. Also, it might be time for a history lesson – ‘Students for Students’ was typically considered on the right of the campus politics spectrum, which is a little different from the rest of the country, where the SFS is typically CFS aligned. At UBC, the ‘left’ group was SPAN, or the Student Progressive Action Network. My political affiliations to the BCLP are because of how I believe the best PSE can be achieved. I make no apologies for them – I wear my red and blue proudly.

    I don’t really understand your comments about the statue. My political actions don’t really have anything to do with it. I do know, however, that lobbying is not a simple process – if it were, we wouldn’t have an entire portfolio dedicated to it.

    My student society (a term I use for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it is what the AMS calls itself – check the logo) has a responsibility for the broad well-being of it’s members. I’ll keep defending it the best way I know how.

  5. 5 Pierce
    July 3, 2009 at 1:16 am

    I know Students for Students was the ‘right’ group, that’s why I used it, I didn’t think you would have been in the left group. AMS needs slates if you want participation. I can make a case for the lack of women representation and the willingness of ‘new blood’ to get involved based on this idyllic notion of being ‘slate-less,’ which is absurd in general as we all form groups whether a rule states otherwise. I also think the AMS needs term limits, as too many students out there say ‘I’m not voting, because A) we have no real power B) its a popularity contest run by the same people every year.

    No, the statue means everything as its the Student Union or as you like to say ‘Society’ being blatant about a foreign policy issue. So if you believe that the AMS shouldn’t delve into foreign policy, then you wouldn’t agree with the existence of the statue, as its a foreign policy statement about democracy in China and during the past weeks democracy in Iran. I hope I’m making myself clear. You seem to say suggest that it was a black and white issue, when a prominent statue sits by the Knoll as a clear foreign policy statement.

    We are a multi-national campus, it would be wise to take neutral stances on global issues to diffuse any tensions that rise up within our community during the year. In many respects the AMS should act as an intermediary between two groups. We can’t have students fighting other students over a conflict back home.

    If being fearful of government retaliation because we campaigned against them during an election is your sole reason, it is a rather weak one. Maybe its Canadians lack of exposure and willingness to form coalitions? (just kidding) Governments and especially political parties don’t care that you campaign against them during an election (they don’t even know what we’re doing). They expect that (we promote something), its politicking. When the dust settles, you then get back to work on what you were doing (as if nothing happened, because we’re a special interest group, our views never change nor should they).

    Gordon Campbell does not lose sleep at night over a leaflet, if the AMS can’t debate the sitting government, then how is that democratic? B.C. is not a one party ruled state where going against the leader means certain isolation and retaliation (we have nothing to fear, and nothing to lose, in an election campaign).

    Therefore, it is rather inclusive that you would state something to the akin of ‘they might get angry,’ so what, good for them, there’s a bunch of old white past retirement age and 45,000 of us, I think we can take them. They’d probably want to see that, it shows we’ve got a pulse and believe in something. It is also electioneering, it is saying ‘this is what we believe, we believe in helping students across all of B.C.’ while the BC Liberals, BC NDP, BC Greens, BC Conservatives go “this is what we believe, we believe in helping students all across B.C.” and then comes policy debates.

    What I or you or the AMS or whomever does in an election, does not change the lobbying game. The sun comes up the next morning, and the issues still remain, and you go to work, they go to work.

    You may call it a society, it may say Society in the constitution, but its still a union.

    On Lobbying, pick which one internal or external? External, we’re not the only school in the country or province, we’ve got to work together with all other schools under one united voice/one org. Same applies to the national lobbying. One group, all united. Never do you split from the one recognized group, you just reform it. Reforming is better than leaving as you marginalize yourself politically and lose whatever capital you had.

    But you can’t tackle big things, without going for local issues first. U-pass for all universities and colleges in Vancouver, abolishing Electoral A and merging it into the city. The list is endless.

    When you first replied the website didn’t have this post up, it was at June 30th. I had to find it in the recent comments or posts. Anytime over beer, hope your surgery went well.

  6. 6 radicalbeer
    July 3, 2009 at 7:41 am

    My principle on non-partisanship is something that the AMS has held to for a long time. If I believed that the AMS should be campaigning for a party, I’d be the first one out there, decking the SUB in red and blue and holding Gordon Campbell rallies from the executive balcony. I’m sure that would have curried us a lot more favour than a non-partisan approach.

    As for slates, I agree with you. They should come back. The issue is being reviewed in Code and Policies Committee right now, and a recommendation should be coming to Council in time for next year’s elections.

    On lobbying, I think we have a primary responsibility to our members. If we compare this to Europe, we would probably fall on opposite sides of the Intergovernmentalist/Neofunctionalist debate. I would like nothing more for the AMS to be part of a national organization that suited our needs, and am looking forward to the changes that CASA has said they would be taking so that we may rejoin as full members. I am happy to see that CASA is, unlike other groups, both willing and able to reform itself. I hope that the same type of group can emerge provincially.

    I suppose I would agree that “you can’t tackle big things, without going for local issues first”, which is the point that I was trying to make originally. We should ignore issues that are big and we have no direct influence or interest in, and focus on what we can and should be achieving locally for students as students.

    As for the specific things, a U-Pass for all was a BC Liberal election promise, and I expect it to be in the next budget. As for Electoral A abolition, we could serve ourselves as students a lot better by incorporating as a city. Amalgamation diminishes influence; incorporation would put students (if they ever voted) in the driver’s seat.

  7. 7 Neal Yonson
    July 3, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    “This past decade participation, ‘fun’, on campus events have diminished not because the university cracked down, but that the people in power decided to stop it, or not fight it. Where’s the advocacy in that?”

    Hi Pierce. I’m right here. Liquor issues is something I am working at this very instant, in a serious and intelligent way, alongside the AMS. Would you like to help? Sounds like a great excuse to crack open even more beers.

    We all want the AMS to GET SHIT DONE. So instead of having philosophical arguments over the merits of student unions taking foreign policy stances, let’s all personally get shit done, and badger the AMS execs to start getting more shit done on behalf of students.

  8. 8 Pierce
    July 4, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Hi Neal,

    Exactly what do you mean by ‘get shit done?’

    I’d love to crack open some beers, I can down pitchers like the best of them.

    Speaking of beer gardens, there was a grad blogger for the Globe and Mail who was a student at UBC. I forget her name, but she ultimately came to the conclusion that it was the students who gave up partying and just focused on academics over this past decade or the decrease in lack of fun. That’s other problem other than beyond ridiculous Liquor laws, old people complaining about noise (I hope they complain during the Olympics), but it was us who stopped ACF etc. While at the same time the University did its best and succeeded in destroying the party culture of Totem etc. Essentially, everyone is at fault here.

    We have to rebuild.

  9. 9 Neal Yonson
    July 5, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    By “GET SHIT DONE” I mean not wasting time on talking about things that will make no difference. Such as the Iran motion. The AMS exec get a year. That’s not a lot. They need to focus their time on tackling issues that actually have an effect on the daily lives of students at UBC, and to forget about everything else.

    I also read Jennifer Gardy’s post about the death of campus liquor culture. If it really is due to the students no longer having a desire to party, then so be it. That’s simply a change in culture. Those happen and I’m not about to tell people that they should hold wild parties if they don’t want to.

    But I don’t think that’s the case, and the crackdown on liquor policy is real. Hopefully once the barriers are removed, those who want to hold big, campus-wide parties will once again be able to.

  10. 10 Kelsey
    April 27, 2010 at 1:37 am


    I find this discussion very interesting, the UVSS has a similar motion regarding Iran on its agenda tonight. Eye on the UVSS even referred to this blog post in its coverage of the motion.

    On the issue of slates, here’s a bit of a misplaced rant on the issue:

    This is a difficult issue, one which has been debated endlessly in many blogs. But one thing that I will tell you is that as someone who is active in a student society where slates are very active forces on campus (UVic, the biggest student society in BC to still tolerate slates), you need to be very careful about slates.

    I hear many people often call for the AMS to reverse it’s slate ban, and often they seem to come from people who’ve never actually operated in an environment where slates dominated a student society.

    Yeah slate bans are arguably overbearing restrictions on freedom of association, and the creation of any slate rule is problematic to enforce policy-wise, but I tell you this as a strong civil libertarian: You should be very careful about embracing slates. I’m not telling you that slates should always be banned, but I’m telling you that slates are something that you must be very cautious with.

    Slates shunt out independents, slates stifle independent thinking, slates elect unqualified people who sweep due to the brand, not individual merit, and slates make student politics absolutely vicious. I have seen this with my own eyes and it’s not pretty or fair to the student body that come under the rule of slate factions.

    I have experienced slate politics in both the majority and minority. When you’re in the majority as a slate, it’s absolutely awesome, just as it would be in an governing party. But when you’re in the minority, it’s absolute hell. The majority will marginalize your opinion, make decisions through groupthink, discourage independent thinking, and will often vote down reasonable proposals simply because you don’t carry their banner of partisanship. You will start seeing people create divisions simply to create wedge issues to help for the next election. Elected members on the board become preoccupied about the next campaign and imaging, rather than representation and rational thought to represent their constituents. By the time half the year is over, slates begin abandoning any projects they were working on for students and devote their entire time to winning the next election (at UVic, it’s not uncommon for slate planning to begin during the starting summer of the year…). As a result of the immense difficulties of getting elected without slates, slates have the effect of creating unaccountable electoral machines, where a few people get to determine the candidacy placements of many through backroom powerbrokering, further limiting the ability of newcomers to join the fray.

    Sure, most of this is just fundamental features of the political process, but with slates, all of it goes into overdrive.

    Will allowing slates again make AMS student politics more exciting? Yes, it will, it’s undeniable. But not for the right reasons. Slates will not increase the genuine ability of students to improve their student life. Instead, slates will increase the fun PRACTICING POLITICS, which, if that’s why you’re getting involved with student government, will be a good thing. But if you’re like many others who simply want to represent students and make a slice of difference in one corner of campus life, you will be cut off from getting to do so in a student organization that rewards power to the most well branded slate.

    I’m not sure how the AMS council is structured, but if slates are ever tolerated, then creating incentives to make it impossible for any faction to control the counsel is something I would strongly encourage you explore. I know you guys use Condorcet voting to elect your executives (which is awesome), but if you happen to have any multi-position seats for Faculty reps or what have you, then I strongly encourage you adopt a proportional system like STV before you ever tolerate slates again. An STV system will prevent renegade majorities from ever taking over and the preferential ranking system will promote competition between individuals on a slate, which will at least mitigate some of the more negative aspects of slate culture.

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