It's all just a game
// Gurpreet Kambo

Politicians as a group don’t have the greatest of reputations. They are stereotyped as conniving, two-faced power brokers who will smile at your face and then stab you in the back when you turn around.

Though perhaps a little over-the-top, in general there is some level of truth in this perspective. A majority of people are mostly honest, but still occasionally tell lies (for whatever reason). Most people would also get eaten alive in the highest levels of the political arena.

Regardless of the level of politics, backroom wheeling-and-dealing must occur, and you must partake in this process if you have any hope in attaining and holding onto power. Although this may not be the original intention of someone who enters into politics, often they are forced to consider compromising their values if they hope to “win” the political game.

These ideas are also applicable to student politics. While my experience in electoral politics is limited to campus student organizations, my impression, from years of following many different levels of politics is that the higher up on the political food chain you go, the dirtier it becomes, and the more it gets to be a “game” in which the Faust-like participant must compromise their goals and values to obtain and maintain power.

My experience as a former student politician also showed me that the “political game” infects student organizations as well, though some more than others. The level of the political game depends on the culture of the organization, and tone of the political engagement on campus. There are two different areas worth considering in evaluation of how political gamesmanship works.

The first and most obvious of these is elections. If, as a politician, you have some scruples about the political game, and your opponent does not, your opponent immediately has an advantage if they do not have a problem saying what people want to hear instead of revealing their true intentions. There are countless examples of this, including the HST debacle in previous provincial election, in which the BC Liberals lied about their intentions to bring the HST to BC, and immediately after the election brought it in anyway.

Student politics is often plagued with similar issues, though with lower stakes. When I was a student at Kwantlen, I made the unfortunate mistake of running in the election with the now-disgraced Reduce All Fees (RAF) Party. During the election campaign, the party candidates (myself included) did everything but engage students in a critical debate on democracy and student representation. We gave away free food and candy for votes, made promises we knew we couldn’t fulfil, and made frivolous electoral complaints against other candidates. If there was a dirty trick we didn’t pull, we probably failed to think of it at the time. Consequently, we won many of the positions, though the whole slate ended up disqualified. In the next election, the RAF party swept the election (without me of course), because their unscrupulous nature gave them a huge advantage in campaigning.

Unrelated to elections, but similar, most student organizations as a whole will also publicly present themselves as being enormously productive and valuable to the student body. Some of them are, some fail to be, but they will all mask the fractious debate and conflict that often occurs internally, and present a happier face publicly. This is the way that the political gamesmanship works in terms of an electoral candidates engagement with potential voters, or as a matter of the organization engaging with its membership as a whole.

The second area in which political gamesmanship is an important factor is behind the scenes, largely in the way that elected officials work within the internal decision-making mechanisms of the organizations, but also in the backroom wheeling and dealing that occurs during election campaigns. As a note – student union staff and non-elected students – may also be factors in the politicization of these mechanisms; however, it is generally inadvisable for staff to be involved in this capacity, and individual non-elected students are usually so insignificant in most such organizations as to not have an effect in this area.

In regard to this style of backroom politics, the CSU has had its ups and downs, but as a whole (in the past few years) has appeared to avoid the strident politicization of its decision- making mechanisms. Hypothetically speaking, the system is set up so that the executives work collaboratively in consultation with membership to examine the pros and cons of each item of consideration, and then make an informed decision.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always how it plays out. Typically, if you want something to pass that may be contentious, you must lobby other voting members to be on your side before the meeting in which the decision is made, and do it before the your opponent makes those same phone calls. You also need to make sure your backers are actually in attendance at that meeting, and know what arguments will enhance your proposed outcome and minimize any drawbacks.

Your personal popularity is also a factor in these situations. Typically, on such contentious issues, many people have already made up their minds before the meeting in which the ‘official’ decision is made, because those discussions have already happened privately.

My experience with the Canadian Federation of Students, a national student organization that many schools are part of, was particularly instructive in how people “win” in a decision making environment that is highly politicized.

The CFS is an organization that inspires extremely strong feelings on both sides, either a fanatical devotion or a fanatical hatred. Most of the member schools have permanent staff members who are sent as part of their delegations and are long-time loyalists to the CFS. Often, when it comes to making decisions, staff members do much of the talking and advocating during sessions. First time student representatives may simply follow along with what these staff members say, as staff members know what they’re talking about, and have the trust of their student executives. In addition, those who dissent from the established line are frequently marginalized by accusations of being “right-wingers."

I will admit that I myself played the political game myself sometimes – and I’d like to think I was decent at it, or I wouldn’t have stuck around so long. However I’d also hope that my own style of it included a higher level of integrity and honesty than perhaps the vocation has a reputation for. Most politicians don’t enter politics to become “politicians”; they enter to make a difference, but the system forces them to play the game, and if they don’t, they lose, because everyone else is playing it.

//Gurpreet Kambo, columnist

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: