Imbalance at UMSU

Balance of powers essential to functioning student government

There’s a power imbalance within the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) between UMSU Council and the executive. Though council is supreme in theory, in actuality, the executive holds the power. The tail wags the dog.

On paper, the executive is accountable to council. The University of Manitoba Students’ Union Act assigns council to manage the business and affairs of UMSU. The act makes no mention of an executive and assigns it no specific powers. Council, as laid out in the Bylaw Manual, creates the executive and gives it certain responsibilities. As a creation of council, the executive is subservient to council.

The supremacy of council is seen in many UMSU formalities. For instance, the executive submits regular reports to council detailing its activities. Council has the opportunity to question these reports and express any concerns it might have. There are also situations where the executive expressly seeks council’s approval, such as expenditures of $5,000 and over.

In practice, the executive holds all the power. Executive members are full-time officers of UMSU. They can devote their entire day to furthering their agendas. They can utilize the expertise of UMSU staff to develop large-scale plans and proposals. Most importantly, the executive controls the flow of information to council.

In contrast, council members are student volunteers with heavy academic commitments. They lack the time and expertise to adequately scrutinize the executive’s proposals. How many council members could fully dissect the executive’s plan to spend $64,500 to build UMSushi, or $78,000 for a freestanding electric sign on University Crescent?

The executive seeking council’s approval is just a formality because council lacks the ability to properly challenge them.

The executive can justify their power because of their democratic mandate. Each executive member is elected by popular vote. The will of the executive is the will of the majority. The executive is elected based on a campaign platform which students expect them to deliver.

But council, too, has a democratic mandate. Council members are elected as representatives of student associations, constituency groups, and affiliated student organizations. Although larger student associations elect more representatives than smaller student associations, the formulation of council ensures that smaller student associations have meaningful input. The structure of council protects the interests of minority groups against the tyranny of the majority.

How can council reclaim control of UMSU and the executive? Ideally, each council member would be full-time, just like the executive currently is. Of course, the cost of salary and benefits for over 40 new employees is fiscally unworkable. Furthermore, it’s unfair to ask 40 students to disrupt their studies and devote a year towards UMSU.

While council can never have as much time to spend on UMSU as the executive, it is possible for council to have staff expertise just like the executive has UMSU staff expertise. Council can hire its own policy analysts to scrutinize proposals from the executive, and provide councillors with an informed second opinion. This independent analysis would provide councillors with all the facts they need and help them to fully understand the issues instead of just voting along with the executive.

When council rubber-stamps executive proposals, it’s not doing its job. The University of Manitoba Students’ Union Act intends for council to remain supreme. Council needs to take charge and take UMSU back from the executive. It won’t be easy for a volunteer council to compete with the time and staff expertise of the executive, but it can be done. If UMSU is to function as it should, the dog needs to wag the tail.