Student politics can be exhausting for students who don’t speak the language. And with this year’s presidential race featuring two experienced, well-matched politicians, even students who have a background in the public sphere could find themselves confused. The Gateway’s Election Dissection brings together three SU experts to act as your translators — and to go through each candidate’s platform with a fine-toothed comb. News Editor April Hudson and Online Reporter Michelle Mark sat down with the panel shortly into the campaign period to analyze each race and determine which candidates, if any, deserve to represent you for the 2013/2014 school year.
Alex Eldridge is a current graduate student in Library and Information Studies. She was The Gateway’s Editor-in-Chief for the 2011/2012 news year, and served as the Senior News Editor for the 2010/2011 year. In addition to covering the Students’ Union during her time at The Gateway, she followed Students’ Union politics and elections closely throughout her undergraduate degree.
Ngina wa Kaai sat on Students’ Council for two years as a representative for the Faculty of Education. She served as the campaign manager for previous elections candidates, including Arts student Dorothy Roberts and current Chief Returning Officer Farid Iskandar.
Michael Ross is currently a graduate student at the U of A, but he still keeps a close eye on the Students’ Union. After serving as an Engineering councillor for two years on Council, Ross was also last year’s Speaker. He keeps a blog, which sometimes addresses political issues, and has been writing for The Gateway since leaving his Council duties and beginning his graduate degree.
The discussion kicked off with the panel brainstorming reasons for the continuing trend of all-male executives as well as this year’s lack of opposed candidates.
Considering last year’s hotly contested races, Ross suggested that perhaps years of heavily and lightly contested elections tend to alternate.
“It seems to go in waves,” he said. “We had the race two years ago where only one race was contested ... then there was the explosion where (there were) two to four candidates for every race last year.
“That’s what we’re probably seeing again this year: just everyone’s trying to posture themselves and time themselves
Ross also described the trend of all-male executives as a strange one, pointing out that most faculty and department associations on campus have a fairly even gender split, with females regularly filling presidential or vice-presidential roles.
However, Eldridge countered that since the Students’ Union is a more prestigious organization than faculty associations, the lack of female candidates is only to be expected.
“I think that’s the trend you see in corporations and businesses — it’s that the higher you go, the fewer females that there are,” she said.
“The closer to the top it is, the less likely there’ll be females there, and I think we’re seeing the exact same thing.”
Wa Kaai described her own experience as a female councillor considering running for an executive position, saying that she decided not to run out of uncertainty of what the Students’ Union could provide for her.
“(I’m) not saying that it wouldn’t have been a good idea for me to be an executive, but I think the more that I talked to women involved in the Students’ Union, it also tends to factor in that way,” she said.
“A lot of them have goals to achieve and life plans, and sometimes the Students’ Union doesn’t factor in, and that’s okay.”
Ross pointed out that the lack of female executives in itself could be deterring women who might otherwise consider running.
“You’re getting to a point where if you’re looking at things in a role model term ... it’s been a while since we had a strong female executive,” he said. “Maybe this year, there are people running who just haven’t seen a female candidate.”
Horse with a Gun (joke candidate)
While the panel brought up several appealing platform points from each of the two serious contenders for president — Petros Kusmu and Saadiq Sumar — there was general agreement that both candidates had confusing platform goals and overused hollow rhetoric in their campaigns.
In Kusmu’s case, the panel was most attracted to his idea of exploring the implementation of one-week “Block Courses” which would be held just before the commencement of Fall and Winter terms.
While they agreed the idea was an ambitious one and would likely take more than a one-year term as president to fully establish, the panel ultimately supported it, praising its uniqueness.
“I think that’s a really great idea, and he backs it up well. It’s been going on at the University of Calgary, so why not here?” said Eldridge. “That’s a good argument for me — I thought that was his probably strongest platform point.”
However, the panel was unsure about other aspects of Kusmu’s platform, such as his plans to create an innovation fund, which they all agreed was too vague to warrant approval.
“I’m wondering where the money (for the fund) is going to come from. Is it coming from rich alumni? Is it coming from government?” wa Kaai said. “If you’re going to create a fund, are you going to create a (Dedicated Fee Unit)? Because that’s going to involve another referendum and another year.”
“Overall … there’s not enough detail for me. A couple good, unique ideas, but beyond that, nothing really that new,” said Eldridge.
When the panel switched their focus to Sumar, however, they agreed that although Sumar’s platform contained the specificity Kusmu’s lacked, what they saw as the gimmicky nature of some of his ideas made them wary.
“One thing I do appreciate about (Sumar’s) platform is that he does have specific checkbox things,” said Ross. “You can, at the end of the year, see: did you or did you not bring more animals to campus?”
Eldridge was more skeptical, saying that although mental health on campus is an important issue to address, pet therapy is a superficial way to campaign for it.
“It’s specific, for sure ... but when I heard him say that on the Gateway video, ‘llamas and birds,’ I was like, ‘Really? We’re going to elect you because you’re going to bring more animals to campus?’ ”
The panel also took issue with Sumar’s split between his three campaign themes — campus pride, campus care and affordability of education — and his three platform goals of protecting students, health initiatives and sustainability.
Unsure about the purpose behind his inclusion of platform themes, the panel criticized Sumar for using what they perceived as buzzwords instead of concrete points, and for failing to explain the connections between the themes and the platform itself.
“In his bio, he’s like, ‘I have three themes.’ He stops talking about themes, says, ‘I have three points,’ and he talks about his points,” Ross said.
“It’s really confusing. He has three themes, and then three separate points, and it’s just a really weird way to split it apart,” said Eldridge.
Sumar’s other points, such as academic programming during Reading Week and removing the mandatory nature of the meal plan, were also a miss with the panel. Ross added that Sumar’s idea of doing a waste audit in the SUB food court didn’t go far enough.
“There’s this weird thing that some candidates have had where they say, ‘I want to implement an audit’ or ‘I want to assess something.’ Often, you do the audit, and then just stop,” he said.
“Great, so we know we waste ‘x’ number of mexi-fries a day ... but after that, what do you do? It has to be followed up by something.”
As for Anthony Goertz and Horse with a Gun, the panel described the latter as one of the best joke candidates seen in recent years, but were baffled by Goertz, who has claimed he is only running to receive the funding allotted to candidates for campaigning purposes.
“I feel like he’s trying to make a point, but isn’t making a point at all at the same time,” Ross said. “He could actually be out there saying, ‘Look what I can do with $550.’ But instead, he has ‘Anthony is a person,’ and that’s it.”
“Short of saying, ‘This is what I can do,’ he isn’t exposing any real flaws in the system, I don’t think. He isn’t really messing it up as I feel he could, if he’d been trying to,” he added.
Although the panel agreed the battle for the presidency will likely be a close race between Kusmu and Sumar, they projected Kusmu as the likelier winner due to his variety of connections on campus.
Will win: Petros Kusmu – three votes
Should win: Petros Kusmu – one vote, Undecided – two votes
Despite Chelen’s obvious experience as the current vice-president (Academic), the panel was instantly skeptical of both his desire to re-run and what they viewed as lacklustre platform goals.
Suggesting that Chelen’s lack of competition may have made him lazy this election season, the panel agreed that although he is more than qualified, so far his campaign has fallen flat.
“This is just a personal issue of mine whenever someone re-runs for the same position — why didn’t you do it the first time around?” said Ross. “I mean, you had a whole year of looking at textbooks being expensive, and now you’re saying, ‘Okay, this time we’re going to do cheap textbooks.’ ”
“I just feel like he didn’t really have much to say at all,” Eldridge agreed.
The panel speculated that Chelen’s experience and track record from his current term would have guaranteed his victory even if there had been other candidates; however, they agreed that more effort on Chelen’s part would have boosted him even further.
Wa Kaai said that although she still thinks Chelen is the best person for the job, his platform was sorely lacking in both details and unique ideas.
“This is, essentially, ‘We’re going to stick with the status quo,’ ” she said.
“It just would’ve been nice if he had his feet to the fire a little bit more and really put in some solid promises,” Ross added.
Will win: Dustin Chelen – three votes
Should win: Dustin Chelen – three votes
The panel was impressed by Woods’ experience in Students’ Union external policy, as well as the character he has shown by re-running after his defeat last year.
“A lot of the time you hear someone in a campaign saying, ‘I love everything about the Students’ Union; I want to help everything about the Students’ Union.’ And then they lose and they have nothing to do with it ever again,” said Ross.
“I definitely have to give him credit for saying, ‘You know, I still actually want this. I’ll work with you guys for a year, build my credentials and then I’ll try it again.’ And that’s impressive, I have to say.”
However, wa Kaai said that although his platform was strong, it remained light on specifics, especially for his point on mental health funding.
“I am wondering if, hypothetically, let’s say he gets the funding that he asks for. How is it going to be implemented? A little more detail there — what is he going to do?” she said.
Ross was also uncertain about Woods’ campaign, which he said may have alienated voters with its obscurity had there been more candidates running against him.
“Because he was on the inside, it seems like he’s picked three issues that no one knows about (if they) aren’t already on the inside,” he said. “The point he keeps making that no one knows what a mandatory non-instructional fee is ... the fact that he’s having to explain what those are during the campaign is sort of just a weird strategy.”
Eldridge disagreed, saying that Woods’ insider knowledge isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“(Woods) is quite passionate,” she said. “I think that even if this stuff isn’t really something that average students can connect with, they can connect with him. Because he clearly cares.”
Will win: Adam Woods – three votes
Should win: Adam Woods – three votes
While Vice-President (Student Life) is only one of only two contested races in this year’s SU elections, the panellists deemed both candidates’ platforms wholly uninspiring, with a lack of new ideas for the portfolio.
They agreed that the fact neither candidate had a working website by the second day of campaigning was an issue, though for Lau at least, this is because of a pre-campaigning penalty.
They also agreed that one refreshing factor in this year’s Student Life race was the appearance of two newer faces.
“I’m glad to see no execs running for this race,” Ross said.
Wa Kaai critiqued Lau’s platform point of a case competition calling for proposals “to strategically combat the broad topics of student engagement.” In the case competition, each student would create a poster to display their work at a symposium, with the winning team receiving a grant to implement their ideas. Lau has touted this idea as a means of engaging the larger student body.
“I think that’s the opposite of engaging students. (Lau) is going to present something to a particular group of students who would be of the mind of entering case competitions in the first place, or who would be interested in these things,” wa Kaai said.
“(He’s) not engaging all students in the first place — that’s putting him at a disadvantage.”
The panellists also brought up a comment Lau made in The Gateway’s Q&A interview, in which he alluded to a strategy he did not want to publicize, for fear students would view it as “vile.”
“You’re telling someone you have a secret agenda, and you’re telling us it’s bad,” Ross noted.
Turning to Smith, the three panellists took a look at his plan to increase awareness for campus events — a part of Smith’s campaign that isn’t backed up with tangible ideas.
“Having worked with campus events a lot this year, I’m very curious to see how he’s planning on increasing awareness for all these events,” Ross said.
“It’s not a bad idea to get people out, but … it’s just the same old thing you always hear.”
Wa Kaai agreed, adding that the students who are actively interested in getting involved on campus will probably already be involved.
“It’s the students who go home every day at 4 p.m. because they don’t have class anymore, and they don’t know what goes on on campus at night. It’s those students we need to engage,” she said.
However, Smith’s idea for re-establishing an SU street team to do classroom announcements and one-on-one conversations was a tipping point for the panellists, who agreed it was a solid idea.
Will win: Smith — three votes
Should win: Smith — three votes
After some deliberation, panellists were torn on whether uncontested candidate Josh Le’s platform was just right or too underwhelming.
“I don’t mind an OpsFi candidate that says, ‘Stay the course,’ ” Ross said. “It’s frightening if an OpsFi candidate were to say, ‘Let’s radically change something,’ because you have one year in there.”
Eldridge disagreed, stating there was some room in Le’s platform for new ideas, and he didn’t deliver them.
“I feel like he could have given a few new, small ideas for things he wanted to see in the SUB renovation,” she explained.
Eldridge and her fellow panellists also took issue with Le’s point about reviewing SU businesses, which they considered to already be part of the Operations and Finance portfolio, and which did not address RATT, Dewey’s or the possibility of a new campus food vendor option.
“I’ve always wondered why we don’t have some sort of vegetarian, vegan, halal or kosher vendor on campus, and why can’t the Students’ Union provide that? An SU-run, strictly vegan or vegetarian vendor would be great to see,” wa Kaai said.
However, Le’s platform did allude to the pursuit of localized options, which Eldridge thought would not apply well to SUB.
“At least he’s trying to make you see how everything works in one big circle, because everything is linking back to ‘think local,’ ” wa Kaai countered. “That’s not a bad idea — I’m just interested to see how he’d do that.”
A point in Le’s favour appeared when Eldridge brought up his extrovertedpersonality, which he has been using as a point for his campaign.
“It’s not that I have anything against introverted VP (OpsFi) people, but I like that he’s talking about making the position a little more high profile,” she said. “That might even help with getting more candidates interested in this position.”
One point the panellists wanted to see in Le’s platform was an acknowledgement of the issue of affordable food on campus, which has received much discussion but no solution.
Will win: Le — three votes
Should win: Le — three votes
Running uncontested for his second term in office, incumbent Board of Governors Representative Brent Kelly’s platform struck the panellists as remarkably toned down from what he ran on last year.
Although approving of his change in tone, panellists feared his platform was more SU-oriented than it should be, since his position is not an executive position and is related more closely to the U of A’s administrative BoG body than to the SU.
However, the panellists also felt Kelly brought some good ideas for reform within the SU to the table, especially regarding a point about mandatory tabling for councillors as a means of reaching out to the student body.
“He did do the tabling himself this year, so obviously he is trying to lead by example,” Ross said. “It’s a step up from a blog (or) a Twitter account. If it actually happens, that would be pretty cool.”
However, Ross noted this was one of the things that does not fall under the BoG Rep purview.
In regards to Kelly’s push to Council to recognize its meetings take place on Aboriginal territory, which he has included in all his reports this year, the panellists agreed it was strange his current platform has made no mention of it.
“Presumably, this has been an important issue to him over the last year, and you’d think this would be the easiest way for him to get the message out: to talk about it during the campaign,” Ross said.
Kelly has also been running on a platform of creating a place for students to go to learn more about the SU and to get more involved, a subject the panellists agreed had many avenues of action already.
“It’s not really in his purview at all,” Eldridge repeated. “I don’t mind the idea of a new way, though. Everyone’s talking about the SU connecting more with students.”
Will win: Kelly — three votes
Should win: Kelly — three votes
To finish off the elections discussion, the panellists talked about the upcoming student referendum for the new U-Pass agreement, which will see the price of the student transit pass rise over the next four years.
“Beyond the U-Pass, I wouldn’t take the bus,” Eldridge said. “It’s unfortunate that prices are going up, but it’s still way cheaper than getting a bus pas every month. It’s nice that it’s going to be Spring and Summer as well now.”
In the face of no massive discontent or concerted effort to stop it, the panellists agreed the referendum was likely to pass by a large margin.
“The prices go up — they always go up,” Ross said. “Frankly, they’re (only) going up by four non-U-Pass bus trips a year.”