A federal system of government is one in which the subnational units are autonomous, meaning that they have certain powers and prerogatives that cannot be taken away by the central government (and, by implication, that they cannot be unilaterally dissolved or amalgamated by the central government). A unitary or "centralist" system is one in which the subnational units, if they exist at all, are not autonomous. Autonomy is the key: a system with non-autonomous subnational units may call itself federal, but in reality its central government holds all the cards.
Thus Australia is a federation of States because the States are autonomous. Similarly, Canada is a federation of Provinces and Switzerland is a federation of Cantons. But the individual Australian States are unitary because the municipal (local) governments only have such powers as are delegated to them by the States and can be dissolved or amalgamated by the States.
If, as some reformers propose, Australia's six States, two major Territories and 900-odd municipalities were replaced by a few dozen self-governing "regions", the resulting system would be a true federation provided that the regions were truly autonomous. Some "regionalist" models do indeed provide for autonomous regions. It is even possible (although not this writer's preference) to create a regional system without changing a word of the present Constitution: the existing Territories or parts thereof could be made autonomous under s.121, while the existing States could split into smaller States under ss.123 and 124, and the new mini-States could, and probably would, refer some of their powers to the Commonwealth under s.51(xxxvii).
Professor Geoffrey de Q. Walker, in his recent article "Ten Advantages of a Federal Constitution" (OLO, May 2001), acknowledges none of this. In his opening paragraph he uncritically contrasts "federalism" with "waiting for an appropriate time in which to abolish our spent State legislatures". In the next paragraph he quietly correlates the States with "constitutionally decentralized government". In the fifth paragraph, where he says that "centralists give federalism the disparaging label ‘states’ rights’", he reinforces the false identity between federalism and the States, and establishes a false dichotomy between centralism and the States whereby his opponents are branded as "centralists" for the remainder of the essay.
Having erected his straw man, Walker ritually knocks it down by expounding ten "advantages of constitutionally decentralised government". Let us re-examine these advantages from a regionalist viewpoint.
1. The right of choice and exit
"A federal system allows citizens to compare political systems and ‘vote with their feet’ by moving to a state they find more congenial," says Walker.
Citizens could also vote with their feet in a regionalist federation. Moreover, the political differences between regions, unlike those between States, would reflect demographic differences between urban and rural areas.
2. The possibility of experiment
Says Walker: "Federalism ... is more conducive to rational progress because it enables the results of different approaches to be compared easily. The results of experience in one's own country are also less easily ignored than evidence from foreign lands."
There is an element of circularity here. If the policy on a certain issue differs from State to State, these differences are indeed harder to ignore than international differences on the same issue. But if the policy is determined centrally, the States do not distract attention from international comparisons. Combining this point with Walker's argument, we conclude that we must have interstate differences because international differences are too easily ignored because of those interstate differences that we had to have.
That said, a larger number of autonomous regions gives more scope for experimentation, on issues within the powers of the regions, than a smaller number of States.
3. Accommodating regional preferences and diversity
"The decentralisation of power under a federal constitution gives a nation the flexibility to accommodate economic and cultural differences," Walker writes, without admitting that the "economic and cultural differences" between States are dwarfed by those between the urban and rural parts of any one State. Accommodation of these differences requires regional governments, not State governments.
4. Participation in government and the countering of elitism
"A federation is inherently more democratic than a unitary system," says Walker, "because there are more levels of government for public opinion to affect." That is true, but note that the comparison is between a federal system and a unitary system, and not between two different federal systems.