Monday, October 25, 2004

Asymmetrical Federalism

Asymetrical Federalism

Anyone who listened to Rex Murphy last night heard various conversations about asymetrical federalism, including a brief interview with the Minister of Federal/Provincial Relations, the Hon. Ms. Robillard. For me, what was shocking about the general tone of the discussion was Murphy claiming that he had not heard the term "asymetrical federalism" before. At one point he explained that this term was new. The Hon Minister did little to clear away confusion by explaining that asymetrical federalism is a flexible type of federalism that allows the federal government to work out seperate deals with different provinces on matters of concern to them.

This is a very simplified discussion. The idea of asymetrical federalism has been around for a long time. Some might say, in fact, that it is built right into the original Canadian constitution -- the British North America Act (1867) -- although the term was not used at that time. Certainly, the term "asymetrical federalism" floated about in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the general controversy surrounding the failed constitutional reform project that ultimately came to be known as the Charlottetown Accord. So ... what is it?

Briefly, the term asymetrical federalism refers to a federal system in which the division of powers (and specific arrangements pertaining to them) are not the same from province to province. Asymmetrical federalism would allow, for example, a federal union of some sort to exist, but separate and different provisions relating to specific jurisdicitons might be in place for one or some provinces. For those of you who know contemporary history, you'll recall that the Spicer Commission considered this as one possible solution to Canada's constitutional impasse of the late 1980s.

The opponents of asymetrical federalism argue that it is an warmed over version of distinct society "ethnic nationalism"; that is: something to be avoided. It creates different systems of jurisdictional power across the country and ultimately creates a patchwork quilt approach to federalism. It supporters contend that it merely recognizes the diversity of Canada and allows the Canadian state (at the federal and provincial levels to respond to local needs).

The important point of asymetrical federalism, it seems to me, is this: in practice the federal government does seem willing to "cut" special deals with certain provinces. It has immigration agreements with some provinces, Quebec has a different pension plan than the rest of the country, Ontario and Quebec (officially, at least) continue to constitutionally mandated religiously-based education systems, and there is a different EI regime for eastern Canada, than for the rest of the country. In practice, then, we can note the federal provincial relations are far from symmetrical. The problem seems to be doing more than noting this. Canadians, IOW, seem to recognize that there may be some need to have a varying federalism that responds to local needs and is different in different partsof the country, but they seem to be wary of writing this into law. The recent health care deal is a good example. From what I can tell, there are some different provisions of this deal that pertain to Alberta and Quebec, but not the rest of the provinces. It is written into the policy, but as a federal/provincial agreement; not as a matter of constitutional law.

In effect, then, we have asymmetrical federalism in practice but not name. This does not surprise me. What does is that a leading Canadian political commentator has so short a memory as to not remember that this term has a long history and had been used frequently 15 years ago.
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