Convention Comments Number 10

June 13, 2017

The Convention Observers

In most forms of democratic government, there is a commonly held belief that the people governed should be provided the opportunity to witness their governing body in action.  Thus, in Canada, meetings of elected federal, provincial or municipal representatives are normally open to the public and, in most cases, adequate seating arrangements are provided.

It is not uncommon to find this principle practiced by social organizations, particularly labour unions.  At union conventions, this contingent of attendees is referred to as Observers.

"Observer" - One that observes, as in a representative sent to observe but not participate officially in a gathering.

As in the case of Parliament, a Provincial Legislature, or a Council Chamber, Convention Observers are forbidden to participate in the debate or otherwise interrupt or interfere with the proceedings.  Usually observers are permitted to attend all sessions of the Convention and all caucus meetings.  Observers are also entitled to attend committee meetings at the expense of locals.  Available space may determine how many observers from each local.

In addition to observing convention proceedings however, and thus, learning the parliamentary principles on which the union is based, convention observers often have a secondary function which is just as important, i.e. to report.

The attendance of observers is at the expense of the union in some cases (see By-Law 9, sections 12 and 13) and at the expense of the sponsoring local in others.   Presumably this expense is rationalized by the educational value of convention attendance (that is to say well informed and experienced members provide a direct and tangible benefit to the local), as well as the desire to obtain a conclusive report on the proceedings.  It is true that delegates will, or at least should, submit a report to their local, but such a report will be concerned with the details of the business conducted.  An observer's report, however, can and should reflect an overview of the convention as a whole, its parliamentary structure, the degree of participation by delegates, the minority view on important issues, and the general impression of the reporter on the convention.

And a reporter is exactly what an observer should endeavour to be - Why, Who and How of Convention Proceedings.  However, the observer must be critical too.  The convention, after all, is the supreme governing body of the Component and it is the observer's task to report on the manner in which that power and authority is being exercised.  Criticism, justified and constructive, of the way we are governed is an integral feature of the parliamentary system.  Without it, complacency or resigned acceptance of the status quo would supplant the ideal of all democratic organizations - Government by the People for the People.  This is the ideal that all convention delegates must pursue.  It is their primary objective.  Convention observers are there to witness and record its realization.