Executive federalism is a process thatinvolves a long series of complex negotiations between the federal governmentand ten provinces. The need for extensive consultation and cooperation among somany governments with a diverse set of interests means that “executivefederalism” is a process that may be very slow to respond to the need forchanges to social and economic policies. The result is a cumbersome and complexsystem of negotiations that has difficulty in responding quickly enough tochanging policy needs.
These problems aside, the processes of“executive federalism” have, nonetheless, achieved some considerablesuccesses. They have allowed the federal and provincial governments toreach agreements on a series of federation-wide programs that form the basis ofthe modern welfare state in Canada. Furthermore, these are programs that theprovinces would not have been able to implement without the financialassistance of the federal government. These grants have allowed the federalgovernment to establishmajor social policies that must operate within the broad conditions set by thefederal government but also allow for differences between the provinces.
For citizens many of these policies havelowered barriers to mobility within Canada and created greater equality of opportunity. These programshave also advanced the concept that citizens have social rights and contributedto a civic nationalism in Canada.
Executive federalism and interprovincialfinancial agreements have also been the major method through with thefederation has evolved. Attempts to reform the federation through the formal amendingprocess of the constitution have in practice proved almost politicallyimpossible and furthermore have contributed to events that seriously threatenedthe unity of the country.61 The processes of“executive federalism” and the use of intergovernmental agreements have beenflexible enough to accommodate Quebec’s demands for greater fiscaland political autonomy while at the same time allowing the federal governmentto use its spending power to achieve federation-wide policy objectives.
4. Transparency and AccountabilityConsiderations
The lack of any formal constitutionalstatus for “executive federalism” has raised concerns about the accountabilityfor the decisions taken by governments that participate in this process. The premiersand the prime minister are not bound by any formal constitutional rules tosubmit agreements they make with other governments to their respectivelegislatures for approval or scrutiny.62 The absence of thisrequirement creates the impression that an agreement could have been madewithout consideration of important interests that are represented by otherparties and interests that are democratically represented in the legislature.
One of the biggest concerns with theprocess of executive federalism is, therefore, is the perception that itsuffers from a democratic deficit. The fact that the premiers and the primeminister negotiate among themselves intergovernmental agreements that have suchwide-ranging implications for Canada’s major social and economicpolicies creates the impression that there is a lack of representativeness anddemocratic accountabilityin these processes.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that thepremiers and the prime minister, and their governments, are elected and underthe rules of the parliamentary system they are accountable to theirlegislatures for all of their actions. Therefore, the process of “executivefederalism” is in this sense entirely consistent with the Canadian tradition ofrepresentative democracy. “Executive federalism” as a process is fundamentallybased on elite accommodation between governments. However, the legitimacy oftraditionalrepresentative democracy is being challenged by a “decline of deference”towards political elites that is taking place in Canada and other westernindustrial democracies.63 The last two rounds ofconstitutional negotiations (1985-1993) indicated that citizens were highlysuspicious of an elite process that excluded the public. Citizens want and expect to play a largerrole in a process that has such significant implications for major social and economicpolicy decision-making and indeed the very future of the country itself.Increased mobilisation of the public and their desire to play a role in thedecision-making process has constrained the ability of government elites tobroker intergovernmental agreements that involve compromises and trade-offsthat may not be popular with large sections of their voters. The recent SUFA(the Social Union Framework Agreement) has also attempted to address thisproblem by includingcommitments to engagement of citizens, but so far there have been no prominentexamples of such initiatives taking place as a result of SUFA.
Another problem that is associated with theprocesses of “executive federalism” is a lack of formal decision-making rules.In the process of negotiations, although each province is equally represented,some provinces have more political power and influence than others due to their size orwealth and this may lead some participants in the process (governments), ortheir supporting publics, to believe (rightly or wrongly) that otherprovinces’ orregions’ interestsdominate the negotiations at their expense. This has the potential toexacerbate existing tensions between governments and highlight conflict ratherthan agreement. Related to the concern about the lack of formal decision-making rules is the power of thefederal government to make unilateral decisions on its use of the spendingpower in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.64 Afterestablishing a practice of negotiating changes to fiscal transfers with theprovinces, the federal government’s subsequent insensitive unilateral decision in 1995 to cuttransfers to the provinces drastically, has contributed to a lack of trust thatnow threatens the ability of the federal government to get cooperation from theprovinces on new programsthat are necessary to accommodate changing social and economiccircumstances.
The complexity of the system of transfersbetween the federal and the provincial governments and the lack of transparencythat applies to intergovernmental agreements is a formidable barrier preventing public understanding ofhow these affect the design and delivery of public services and the developmentof public policies. A related issue is whether a government that imposes a particular taxshould also be responsible for spending it in order to ensure a measure offinancial responsibility and political accountability. However, weighed againstthis is the need to accomplish federation-wide policy objectives and other goals such as regionaland individual equity that are achieved through the use of transfers andintergovernmentalcollaboration.
One implication of the principle of fiscalresponsibility, i.e. that the government that raises taxes should decide howthese revenues are spent, is that the government making transfers shouldestablish conditions on how the recipient government spends these in order toensure accountability. Thus in some federations, most notably the UnitedStates, most intergovernmental transfers take the form of conditionalgrants. The problems with such grants is, however, that they underminethe autonomy and flexibility of the recipient governments. Canada has,therefore, over the last two and a half decades moved instead to heavy relianceprimarily on unconditional or at most semi-conditional transfers, perhaps moreso than any other federation. This has not meant a lack ofaccountability, however, since the provincial executives responsible for thespending of these transfers are in budgetary terms directly accountable totheir legislatures under the system of parliamentary executives, and hencethrough their legislatures to the citizens.
5. Political Culture
Canada is characterised by regional andlinguistic cleavages and the processes of intergovernmental relations andfiscal arrangements both reflect and reinforce these characteristics.
In Canada the provinces do not have anydirect representation within federal government institutions. There is no direct representation of theprovinces in the Senate (as there is in federations such as Germany) or eventhe direct election of Senators to represent the residents of the provinces (asin the United States). The lack of representation for the provinces within the federal parliamenthas resulted in the provincial premiers becoming the primary advocates ofprovincial or regional interests on the federal scene. This explains whyintergovernmental meetings and the processes of “executive federalism” havebecome the primary methods of integrating regional and linguistic interestsinto the federal government’s decision-making process. Thus, the process of executivefederalism and the debates it has generated between governments reflectsCanada’s regionaland linguistic cleavages.
The fiscal arrangements between theprovinces and the federal government have also had a major impact on the roleof the federal and provincial governments. The rise of the welfare state in thepost-war period has meant that the constitutional expenditure obligations of the provinceshave become more important and provincial governments have expanded rapidly inorder to deliver new services to their citizens. Many of these new programswere jointly funded by the federal government and federal funds were a major contributorto the rapid expansion of the provinces’ activities and theirresources. As provincial governments expanded they developed their ownpolitical priorities that reflected their regional or provincial interests.Naturally, these provincial or regional interests were expressed through thechannels of “executive federalism.” In this way, the fiscal transfers from thefederal government to the provinces contributed to the expansion of the provincial governmentsand their increased role in articulating regional interests.
Despite the existence of regional andlinguistic cleavages there is a high degree of consensus among Canadians onmost social values. This consensus has supported the efforts of the federalgovernment to pursue Canada-wide objectives and policies. Through the use oftransfers the federal government has been able to develop a set of Canada-wideprograms that are accessible by all Canadians, regardless of where they live.Compared to most federations these transfers have been largely unconditional oronly semi-conditional in character and this has allowed considerable discretionin how the provinces deliver those programs. This has reflected the diverseregional and linguisticpolitical culture of Canada while permitting the federal government to developbroad Canada-wide social programs and policies.
Table 1: Federal Government Share of Total Public SpendingIncluding Intergovernmental Transfers (Percentages)
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