Vote NO: How the AMS’s undemocratic referendum question undermines student voices

Every year, the AMS finds various bits of its bylaws to change, sometimes small changes, sometimes larger. Sometimes housekeeping, sometimes more controversial. This year the AMS has proposed a significant bylaw change that will severely undermine students’ ability to democratically direct our student union’s actions, and they’re passing it off as a minor housekeeping change.

(Background: Bylaws, rules created by and for the AMS, must be adhered to by the AMS and can only be changed through a referendum or at an Annual General Meeting, aka by the students as a whole.)

To be clear, I’m NOT talking about the referendum entitled “Bylaw and Constitution Revisions”. This one is genuinely about complying with the law, and you should vote yes.

The one I’m concerned about is called “Bylaws: Referendum Revisions” and it reads:

Do you support and approve the adoption of the Bylaw revisions outlined in the document ‘AMS Bylaws: Referendum Revisions’, these revisions to take effect immediately?

So what does this document actually say?

Let me break the changes down (you can read it here). Firstly, remember that there are two ways referendum questions can happen: either they are put forward by AMS Council, or a student group gets 1000 student signatures on their petition. The AMS is proposing the following changes:

  1. Questions deemed to be calling for something illegal by AMS Council will no longer be permitted.
  2. Questions deemed leading (defined as prompting or encouraging a particular answer) by AMS Council will no longer be permitted.
  3. Should AMS Council deem any referendum brought forward by students to be illegal or leading (or if it cannot be answered “yes” or “no”, which is currently a requirement), they can decide to redraft it so that it does fit these requirements. Currently, this redrafting happens by a third party (hired by AMS Council) called Student Court.
  4. If it cannot be redrafted to fit these requirements without fundamentally changing its meaning, the referendum won’t happen.
  5. A redrafted question will go to referendum 10–30 days after Council receives new wording, rather than 10–30 days after the referendum petition of 1000 signatures is received.
  6. The last section says that Student Court must return with new wording within a week and this section is removed.

In principle, I do not think that AMS should be doing illegal things, and I think questions that are leading are problematic. A few simple changes to this question and I would have no problem with it. My concerns are timelines, consultation and the power of Council to redraft.

1. Timelines

There is currently a requirement that Student Court return with a new question within a week. This gives sufficient time for a new question to be redrafted, while still ensuring that the question can be put to the ballot relatively quickly. Referendums have trouble getting enough votes to be valid (reach quorum) if they don’t run during the AMS elections, and since a group will be submitting them 10–30 days before the election, a week gives the possibility that the (revised) question might still run on time. With no requirement for when a question must be redrafted, Council could put off a question until after the AMS elections, hampering the question’s ability to pass. In theory, there’s nothing in the bylaw that stops AMS Council from basically putting it off indefinitely.

When this issue was raised to the AMS, specifically to the chair of the Legislative Procedures Committee, the response was “legal responses can take a long time.” I do not buy this argument. I was an AMS executive, and in the instances when quick responses were necessary for legal matters, those answers were obtained fast. Seeing as this has been possible for much larger concerns, it should be possible for a one or two sentence question.

2. Consultation

The proposed changes say that: “If the question cannot be so redrafted without fundamentally changing its meaning, the petition for a referendum shall be rejected and no referendum held for it.” Since it will be Council redrafting the question, not the group who put forward the question, how will Council know what the meaning of the question actually is? How will they evaluate whether a new question “fundamentally changes” the original meaning? Simply put, consultation (or even consent) of the group who put forward the question should be required. This would still enable Council to ensure the question is not leading or illegal, but would also ensure the meaning is maintained.

When this issue was raised to the AMS, the response brought up hypothetical situations, such as “what if the group has dissolved? What if they don’t want to be consulted or can’t be contacted?” In these situations, it would be the group losing out, since it would be their question that would not be on the ballot.

I find it ironic that the main advocacy position of the AMS this year has been all about university consultation with students, and most candidates in this election are talking about better consultation with students, and yet they are not for consulting students when it might challenge, or even impede what the AMS wants to do.

3. Power of Council to Redraft

Finally, a significant concern is how much power this puts in Council’s hands to change referendum questions. Council would be the group that decides whether or not it’s illegal or leading, as well as the group who redrafts it. While I understand that Student Court is not functional in its current capacities, why are we making this change now when the AMS is going through a significant governance review in the next year, which may well make even larger changes to how referendum questions and Student Court works? Consultation with the group putting forward the question would alleviate some of this concentration of power within the AMS.

I brought these concerns forward to AMS Council when they considered it, and I have already alluded to some of their responses to individual concerns. But even though they acknowledged the concerns as valid, they did not change the proposal and said they would address timelines and consultation in Code. Code, because it is written by Council and can be changed with a 2/3rds vote of Council, still leaves all the power in Council’s hands. In other words, they can put it off indefinitely and or re-write a question with no consultation as long as 2/3rds of them agree.

An undemocratic change

Ultimately, there are three ways that students have power over how their student union, the AMS, is run. Firstly, we have elections. The theory of representative democracy says that elections give people say in governance because they can vote a party back in or out, however, this does not necessarily hold true for the AMS, where students rarely run more than once or twice, so elections actually give us limited say. Secondly, we have Annual General Meetings. Last year, during the tuition/housing hike debacle, the AMS had the first quorate (having enough students to make it valid) AGM in about 40 years. Referendums, therefore, are the strongest mechanism left to us as students to have a say in how our student union is run. Referendums allow us to have a say and are binding on the AMS in the long term. Because referendums are always going to happen when students want change, this means that it is likely to challenge what Council is already doing, meaning Council may have an interest in NOT having the referendum go forward. This change, therefore, will have serious impacts on students’ ability to have a say and is profoundly undemocratic.

Two last thoughts

I would finally like to point out that the AMS’s YES referendum campaign has been framing these questions as simply “uncontroversial” or “housekeeping,” and I find this really concerning, since it will have such a large impact. Secondly, AMS Council spent about 10 minutes talking about this issue at Council, and it was passed by a committee through an email vote. I don’t think the AMS has put enough thought into this, and as I have already said, there are a few simple changes that would significantly alleviate the undemocratic nature of this proposed change and still allow the AMS to achieve their goals.


This is an undemocratic change that will leave students with less say in how their student union is run. Vote No!

Anne Kessler is a former AMS VP Academic and University Affairs, former chair of the Legislative Procedures Committee of the AMS, and current member of the Talon Editorial Collective.