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Don't Dream it's Over

Dec 16 2004 22:02
Lois Lane
Take heart Chris, democracy is alive and well at ICU and Tuesday's council gave evidence of this.
Beit Towers

I suppose I am being a little pedantic when I suggest that democracy did not come to an end with Colin Smith's outburst on Tuesday but rather temporarily floundered, but there's an over-riding point I'd like to make by saying so. I'm not suggesting for a minute that such behaviour is to be tolerated. It's obvious that if any democratic meeting is to remain so then all members must feel free to express themselves and must be protected from interruptions, whether from voting members being described as "f*cking outrageous" or "a backstabbing coward" or an actual invasion of the debating chamber. It's also clear, however, that such interruptions will inevitably occur from time to time. The only thing that can be done is to have rules and enforcement procedures in place to deal with them as best as possible. In this case, Chairman Danny Sharpe's action of stopping the meeting and having the person causing the interruption removed was the appropriate action. However, that was just about all that could be done.

Democracy means a voice for all, even those who don't understand that that's what democracy means. My argument is, dare I suggest it, that the price of occasional interruptions (as long as they are occasional) is worth the very high prize of the opportunity to speak for all. Democracy flounders briefly as a result but the important thing is that it continues on its bumpy ride. In essence, democracy by its very nature is an imperfect system but it is a curiously appropriate one for this imperfect world. As such, its success or failure cannot be judged by singular events. In this case, although it may have changed the result of a vote (I say 'may' since factors such as time to think or discussion points may also cause change) this was not, thankfully, the most significant vote of the evening.

My main reason for saying this is not that little is likely to change since Amnesty, Islamic Soc and Socialist Worker Societies are each supporting Mr Ahmed already and the central Union is unlikely to devote a large amount of its already overstretched time and resources to it. I say this because another paper was passed that refers to something more fundamental to the Union processes than any single activity or policy, fundamental indeed to today's favourite word: democracy.

I speak of course of the paper on Accountability of Union Officers. The reasons why accountability is so very important stem, much like my arguments above, from the imperfect nature of this world. People are not flawless and however good their intentions, they do make inappropriate decisions. I don't wish to make a judgement on whether the Sabbaticals necessarily are making appropriate decisions or not but I do wish to stress that since they could be, their actions demand transparency. Council (which of course includes the Sabbaticals) must be judge of what is appropriate and what is not and it can only do this if it is kept fully informed. Imagine if the Government has withheld details from Parliament regarding an issue on which it was voting, okay perhaps you don't need to imagine.

Of course, if Sabbaticals can be imperfect, so can Council. This is not to be denied, however in a democracy an appropriate decision must represent a balance of the varied needs of a large group of people so the difficulty of finding one is extremely complex. It cannot be taken by one person in isolation and hence Council must retain its powers as the senior decision making body in the Union.

All this does of course make democracy a cumbersome system. This in turn has its disadvantages but it does have an important advantage, which is that only the really necessary and valuable ideas have the momentum to reach fruition. This saves the Union a lot of white elephants. It is a fact that every sabbatical wishes to leave their mark on the Union, to have something concrete to be able to think "that was me". The positive aspect of this is a continual influx of new ideas, the negative aspect however is there is a continual influx of new ideas and Sabbaticals tend to ditch their predecessor's plans so nothing ever lasts very long. I am not being cynical when I say this, indeed I would say that one of humanity's greatest strengths is the desire to make improvements and achieve great things but like all strengths it has its drawbacks. In my 7+ years as a student what I describe has consistently been the case, the most illustrative example being when a "new" Sabbatical post was created in 1997, absolved circa 2001 and recreated in 2003. Bureaucracy therefore exists to protect the Union somewhat against such 'flip-flopping' (to quote red America), to make sure any significant changes happen gradually so they take account, not only of the views of the whole student population but of random fluctuations in those views over time ('noise' if you're an engineer). A frustrating process but a necessary one.

Coming back to democracy and its imperfectness. This system of an elected body holding people to account doesn't always function as it should since all kinds of things affect people's voting patterns. I was deeply heartened that Council did what it ought on Tuesday, taking its powers and responsibilities seriously and acted to preserve them in fact not just on paper. I'd therefore like to make a plea to the Sabbaticals to take Council's requests seriously. President Arif's response to the paper was quite gutting. My heart sank at the words "I would like to say that I look forward to the opportunity, given due time, to disprove the allegations of impropriety in the paper". They sound like the scripted words of official every minister caught with? (adulterous affair, fast-tracked visa application, misinformation given to Parliament).

I did however warm a little to the second part which, paraphrased, said "the totality of motions passed at the last meeting adds, even more, to the workload of myself, my Deputies and staff", which "will mean that even less of what we are required to do will get done". Don't worry Mustafa, without wishing to second-guess Council, I expect that greater transparency can only enable them to better understand your conflicting pressures and perhaps even give indications as to what their priorities are. You don't have to shoulder this decision making burden entirely alone, that's what democracy should be about.

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