A. Federalism Defined

Author:Patrick J. Monahan - Byron Shaw

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K.C. Wheare put forward the classic definition of the federal principle: a "method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each within a sphere co-ordinate and independent."1

Wheare’s definition provides that under a federal system, the general and regional governments each has an autonomous sphere of power that can be exercised independently of the other. Further, the powers of the central government are exercised directly in relation to individual citizens, rather than indirectly through the states or provinces. A similar definition of federalism was offered by A.V. Dicey, who identified the three leading characteristics of a "completely developed federalism" as including: (1) the distribution of powers among governmental bodies, each with limited and coordinate powers; (2) the supremacy of the constitution; and (3) the authority of the courts as the interpreters of the constitution.2Although Wheare’s definition has been criticized by some commentators as being unduly legalistic3and as placing undue stress on

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the separateness of the central and regional authorities,4it provides a basis for distinguishing federal from other forms of government and remains widely accepted. Donald Smiley, building on Wheare’s formulation, offered the following three-part working definition of a federal state,5which we adopt for purposes of this book:

· legislative powers are distributed between a central and a regional government;

· the powers of the central and regional governments are not subject to change by the other level of government; and

· individual citizens are subject to laws enacted by both the central and the regional governments.

This formulation clearly distinguishes federal systems from unitary or confederal systems of government. In a unitary state, ultimate political authority resides in the central or national government. The central government may establish regional or local governments, but local government powers are not constitutionally entrenched and are subject to unilateral change by the central government. France and New Zealand are examples of unitary states.

In confederations, on the other hand, ultimate political authority resides in the states or regional governments, and the central government acts as their delegate. In this model, the central government may not even have the power to enact laws directly affecting individual citizens. For example, the Articles of Confederation...

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