With UCDSU Council on Zoom being remarkably more quiet than the in-person sittings, Nathan Young wonders whether this is due to a unified front in troubled times, or a dereliction of duties.
Every second Monday, 100 or so members of UCDSU’s council meet to discuss any and all business of the Union. Current events have forced the meetings to be held over Zoom, where once they took place in either one of Newman’s lecture theatres or the Fitzgerald Chamber in the student centre. And the shift from the debating chamber seems to have had an effect. The commitment to, or rather appetite for, open debate and discussion seems to have ended.
For every motion, the Chair allows the proposing member to outline the motion, before asking if any speaker would like to speak against the motion. The Chair even points out that he encourages debate and would, no matter the topic, really like to hear if anyone disagrees with any aspect of the motion. About half the time, several hands go up at this moment, only to say that actually they have only a technical question, and once that is explained they will of course fully support the motion. The other half of the time there aren’t even questions, so the proposer is allowed to summate the motion, before everyone votes in favour. There has not yet been a vote so close as to require counting the against votes.
There has only been one exception to this so far which was over a motion on recyclable food packaging proposed by Engineering and Architecture Masters class Rep Daniel Cosgrave. Cosgrave said that having eco-friendly packaging for the eco-conscious was as important as any dietary requirement. Education Officer Hannah Bryson pointed out that, with the Commercial Officer let go due to Covid cutbacks, there was no one in the company left to arduously research the impact of each and every product and source eco-friendly alternatives. This is hardly a battle over principles or ideas, or steering the direction of the union.
In previous years there had been long discussions and debates over motions. Class reps questioned in droves the wisdom of removing the mandate to provide drug testing kits. The conception of the Union as a largely apolitical lobbying body was alive in some constituencies, whereas others saw the adding of correct positions to the policy book as insufficient, and called on campaigns of radical action such as divesting entirely from the fossil fuels industry. After the controversial hosting of Pretty Little Thing led to division over where the Union’s politics and their financial interests rank in relation to each other, all kinds of proposals were put forward and struck down.
Even the reports, at least of the Sabbatical Officers, were discussed. Granted, it was usually some fresher economics student questioning the need for a Sabbat to pay for a taxi between Belfield and Smurfit or some other mundane expenses claim, but it was at least something. It showed that reports were read and that members of council cared about something, even if they had a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of basic expenses.The Sabbat in question, in this case, then-graduate officer Conor Anderson, retorted that if the student can find a public transport route that would allow for travel between the campuses along with several boxes of pamphlets, condoms, and newspapers, then he would use that.
There is a potential argument to be made that the reason for the lack of debate is that all the reports are good and the motions positive and thorough. Given the large number of college officers who feel the need to read their reports out in full, only to reveal that they have done the bare minimum and communicated with constituents and staff, there is reason to doubt the critical thinking skills of each and every member of Council.
Further, and even more obviously, is that members of Council should surely disagree on ideological grounds sometimes. If the self-professed marxism of President Anderson has not yet butted heads with the politics of a single business Class Rep in Council (and it hasn’t) then there are two possibilities: the motions, despite the promise of a radical SU, are milquetoast enough to ruffle no feathers, or the less Marxist members of Council haven’t been paying attention. Even if the majority of this year’s radicalism has been in supporting the GEM students and other non-SU entities, that should still end up in council reports which get passed unanimously without question.
None of this is to say that simply having more conservative opinions would improve council meetings by itself. It would mean that people elected to represent their classes were actually bringing forward the views of their cohort, and it would mean that any motion put before Council would have to be defended. Even if the framework is that all members of Council are activists on the political left, the complete lack of discussion and debate is unlike any leftist gathering to have ever happened before. All members share the goal of some general “betterment for the lot of students”, but tactics, efficacy, and priorities, the topics that start arguments in even the smallest leftist tendencies are treated as moot points that we do, after all, agree on already.
With any motion or policy, critique is good. Even if one considers themselves to be of the far left, discussing a motion calling for something anti-capitalist, the ideological opponents need to speak. First of all, they might have a point. Perhaps what is being called for undermines the interests of the Union. When lobbying for a total divestment from fossil fuels was proposed last year, many members of council pointed out that such industries pay for many PhD programmes, and thus the Union must protect those PhD students first. Perhaps the solving of the climate crisis is so important that this PhD funding would be worth losing, but advocates must be prepared to accept that, in public. If the motion needs more work before it can deliver on its promises, this kind of questioning will force that to happen. Even if the motion is well thought-out and for an important change in policy, this baptism of fire will serve as an education for members. They can leave the chamber knowing full well why it is that they support what they support.
The controversial motions, and the expressing of unpopular opinions, benefit movements. That’s the point of having a Council, and if these debates are no longer needed, then neither is the otherwise tedious tradition of logging in to Zoom to listen to reports.