For more than a decade, Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications, the parent organization that houses The Cord and The Sputnik among many other publications, has overseen the moderation of the Open Forums and Presidential debates for all incoming Students’ Union election candidates. WLUSP provides this service in collaboration with the Students’ Union in an effort to keep the overall election process fair, accountable and transparent to WLU students. This combined service is essential for a fair and transparent election process, for students to make informed decisions on the student leadership for the following school year.
To have a third-party moderate is to ensure that candidates are questioned fairly and accurately with no bias or favour towards certain candidates. We, as an impartial third-party, ensure important and ethical questions are compiled from our own staff and the student body and are asked to every candidate in an effort to preserve WLU students’ rights and the democratic values of an open debate. As with any form of government, the Students’ Union need the watchful eye of the press. The Fourth Estate of the press is essential in a fair and open debate.
This year, the Students’ Union Chair of the Board Adam Kovacs and his election management team decided against a third-party moderation and instead chose to moderate the open forums and Presidential debates themselves. Less than 24-hours before the first Open Forum in Brantford, WLU Student Publications received the Open Forum schedule and noticed the change in moderator. Despite requests to address concerns with the first Open Forum schedule in a meeting set for later that same day, the schedule was distributed anyways. Although we had been in communication with Chair Kovacs and Chief Returning Officer Troy Frieburger for weeks prior to this, we were not consulted or approached in any way regarding this change – it was provided without reason and at the last minute by Chair Kovacs.
During the same meeting with Chair Kovacs, WLU Student Publications was offered the opportunity to follow the already distributed schedule and moderate only incoming Senate and Governor candidates. This was apparently due to Chair Kovacs schedule that prevented him from arriving to the debate on time. We declined the offer due to our journalistic and ethical obligations. As a media organization, we simply cannot ethically justify only moderating only a selection of all candidates, and step aside as proper vetting is eliminated for other candidates.
When officials are elected into power, whether nationally, provincially, locally or on campus, it is understood and trusted by those voting that the vetting process is conducted with honesty, integrity and without internal conflict of interest. The public should trust the election process to ensure candidates are not given positions of authority and financial compensation based on personal agendas.
However, President and CEO of the Students’ Union Tarique Plummer made the decision to join Kovacs and sit on the moderation panel Wednesday in Brantford during the first of two Open Forums for the election season. Here, Plummer and Chair Kovacs led the question period for all Board of Director and Presidential candidates, many of whom currently work for them now. If every debate of an election is moderated by individuals with a possible direct stake in the outcome - how can we be sure of the fairness of these debates or elections. It cannot be known where questions originate, the motivation behind them, possible conflicts of interest or even if more meaningful or hard-hitting questions were avoided being asked.
At the time of print, WLU Student Publications has not received any response from Chair Kovacs or Chief Returning Officer Troy Frieburger after expressing our concerns about the lack of accountability in this year’s election and our proposed collaborative solutions to ensure the final Open Forum and the Presidential debate actually foster open debate. We have also not received any schedule for the next Open Forum or the Presidential debate further hindering our ability to provide accurate coverage to WLU students this year.
Through conversations with Chair Kovacs and Chief Returning Officer Troy Frieburger we are under the impression that Chair Kovacs will be moderating the Students’ Union candidates for both the Waterloo Open Forum and the Waterloo Presidential Debate. We are unsure if President Plummer will be joining him in moderation.
As a member of the student media, and a WLU Student who pays annual fees, I am deeply troubled by the actions thus far in the election by current Students’ Union officials, and fear for the loss of trust in next year’s elected candidates by the student body and campus as a result. Students however are not left without autonomy in this situation – I encourage any student who feels strongly about this, to express it in person tonight at the Waterloo Open Forum at 5:00 P.M. in the Concourse and at the Presidential Debate on January 17 at 8:00 P.M. in the Concourse.