Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Federalism - It's not just for Centralizers any more!

As an addendum to yesterday's post, I see that Nycole Turmel has re-stated her commitment to federalism, and plans to end her membership in the sovereignist Quebec Solidaire. But here's the central issue for me, as someone who teaches courses on Canadian politics and federalism. Saying that you are a "federalist" is a pretty meaningless statement in some important respects. The central feature of "federalism" as a system of government is that power is divided between a central government and regional governments, with each sovereign in their own sphere - although often with some overlapping jurisdictions. Where the balance of power lies between the two levels of government, and how responsibilities are divided up, varies wildly between different federations around the world. Switzerland, for example, gives almost all of the powers to the cantons, while the USA has swung back and forth between a state-centric and national government-centered approach. So when Nycole Turmel says that she is a commited (or strong) federalist, all this really means is that she is not a supporter of Quebec separatism.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate even this level of clarity. As someone who has studied Quebec history for years, I'm well aware that the sovereignist parties have basically monopolized left-wing politics for decades, and many NDP supporters hold their noses and vote Bloc, or PQ, or QS because of their social policies. But for many NDP supporters outside the province of Quebec, it actually does matter a lot whether the party is still committed to a strong national government role in the provision of social welfare. And this, at least for me, is one of the big unknowns about what the May election means for the future of NDP policy. I'm happy that Turmel does not support the sovereignist planks of the two sovereignist parties that she has been a member of, but I'd still like to know more about how she conceives of the future of Canadian federalism. For me, this isn't about using national unity as a political wedge issue, it's about getting more information about how the NDP is conceiving of future directions for the funding and delivery of Canadian social programs.

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