Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Federation and National Identity in Canada and Australia: A Comparative Perspective. (Centenary of Federation Special)

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Federation and National Identity in Canada and Australia: A Comparative Perspective. (Centenary of Federation Special)

Article excerpt

Can representative democratic government work where there exist significant and enduring differences of group identity? It is sometimes suggested that one of the answers to the tensions between identity politics and democracy might be the creation of federal structures. In this paper we use a comparative study of federation and identity in Canada and Australia to point to the possible limitations of federation as an institutional means of resolving such tensions.


John Smart Mill was the first to suggest, in Considerations on Representative Government, that federation might be an answer to the threat that "nationality", as he termed it, posed to free institutions (Mill, 1972). Nationality has various causes for Mill, being the effect of race and descent, language, religion as well as the strongest cause, the "identity of political antecedents" (which includes "community of recollections" and the "possession of a national history"). Mill puts the problem in these terms:

      Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of
   different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially
   if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion,
   necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.... The
   same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect [the
   different sections] in different ways; and each fears more injury to itself
   from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state (Mill,
   1972, 392).

For Mill, race, religion, language, and generally nationality, are formidable obstacles to representative government. The grave implications of this observation become clearer when we recall that Mill regards representative government as the ideally best form of rule--only properly constituted representative institutions pursue the common good as well as advancing the moral, intellectual and active faculties of the people (1972, chs 3, 5). It is for this reason Mill states that "it is in general a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities" (1972, 394). Where this is not possible, Mill offers as one solution the "merging" or "absorption" of one nationality by another. (II) But when this proves impracticable and where the alternative of complete separation is impossible, Mill proposes federation as an arrangement which may preserve free institutions. The constitutional model for a federal government which he recommends, calling it "exceedingly judicious," is that of the American Constitution. (III)

In this essay we argue that this Millian theoretical perspective provides important insights into the different ways federalism was appropriated and deployed in Canada and Australia. More specifically, we claim that both the Canadian and Australian founders accepted Mill's view that `nationality' posed a threat to representative institutions and both adopted federation as a solution to the problem of nationality. But here the similarity ends. The Canadian founders did indeed adopt the Millian proposal of federation as a solution of the problem of `two races' (French Catholic and English Protestant). Federation was conceived in part as a means of securing the group rights and thus the separate identities of national minorities or `races' within an overarching `political identity' provided by a federal government. The Australian founders, in contrast, used federation not to accommodate and perpetuate separate identities, but to found a national government that would guarantee homogeneity by securing a singular `thick' national identity against the threat of incursion by `alien' races. (IV)


For both countries defence and economic union were important motivations for federating. Moves toward the British North America Act (BNA Act) of 1867 (renamed the Constitution Act in 1982) were a response to the threat that the American Civil War represented to the security of the provinces. …

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