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Jörg Broschek

Comparative Federalism and Intergovernmental Agreements: Analyzing Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States, Jeffrey Parker, Routledge Series in Federal Studies, London et New York, 2014, 266 p.

While federal institutional architectures furnish governments with authority to act autonomously in certain jurisdictions, they simultaneously require them to work together. In other words, federations variously combine self-rule and shared-rule. The scope and patterns of shared-rule in federations varies considerably across time and space. For example, the changing nature of the modern state in the twentieth century encouraged the emergence of a new era of cooperation in many federations. In contrast, the “new federalism” initiative in the United States, “open federalism” in Canada and “dis-entanglement” reforms in Germany and Switzerland represent efforts to restore self-rule and to trim back shared-rule arrangements. Mechanisms of shared-rule, however, not only vary depending on the historical context and the federal system, but can also take quite different forms. An extremely important, yet understudied form of shared-rule is the intergovernmental agreement (IGA), which lies at the heart of this ambitious comparative study by Jeffrey Parker.

Considering the historical proliferation and omnipresence of IGAs in almost every federation, the lack of comparative research on this issue is astonishing indeed. As Parker highlights in the introduction to his book, IGAs are manifold and can serve different purposes. IGAs lay the groundwork for the introduction of new policy programs in areas such as health care or education, they establish a framework for the management or regulation of natural resources or create new institutions like the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). In essence, Parker’s comparative study seeks to shed more light on this crucial feature of federal politics by posing two questions: First, how do federations differ in the way they make use of IGAs and, second, what explains these differences?

The study compares the scope and patterns of IGA formation in six federations: Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States. Parker justifies the rationale behind the selection of cases with the institutional diversity that is represented by each federation. As this sample represents federations that contrast in important respects such as size, location, level of economic development or age, it spans a broad range of federal systems. Moreover, it also promises to produce insights that are, to a certain degree, generalizable.

Drawing on institutional theory, Parker introduces a set of seven variables that he expects to be crucial to understand why some federations produce more IGAs than others. These variables are assumed to have different effects. While most of them are conducive to IGA formation, others counteract or mitigate those effects. For example, if a federation displays a high degree of overlapping competencies, governments are more likely to create IGA in order to cope with resulting interdependencies. However, if there exists a large number of subnational governments, it is more difficult to reach an agreement and IGA formation might be inhibited. For each of his six case studies, Parker thoroughly scrutinizes the effect of each variable separately and “in concert,” (how they interact within each federation).

The comparative study of the six federations yields several noteworthy insights. As for the productivity, it is interesting to see that there obviously exist profound differences in how individual federations deploy IGAs as a means of shared-rule. Australia, Canada and Germany have generated a significantly higher number of IGAs than Switzerland and the United States. South Africa is the only federation that has not yet created a single IGA, but it is also by far the youngest federation within the sample. The similarities among Australia, Canada and Germany are remarkable as those three federations differ in many other respects: Australia is usually considered as exemplifying a highly centralized federation, while Canada counts as perhaps the most decentralized one. In addition, unlike Australia and Germany, Canada is a multi-national federation. Finally, Germany sets itself apart from both Australia and Canada as it features a high degree of institutional entanglement and joint-decision-making.

As counterintuitive as these findings might be at first glance, they appear as less surprising after a closer look. First, the differences in IGA productivity among the federations are, to some extent, a consequence of deliberate conceptual and methodological decisions. With good reason, Parker focuses only on what he calls national agreements; this means IGAs that involve virtually all governments. He sets the bar very high, thereby excluding, however, bi- or multi-lateral IGAs among a smaller number of units, as long as they are not part of a larger single federal effort to coordinate one policy area (p. 8-9). Although this certainly is a wise decision to keep a complex comparative study manageable, the picture of IGA productivity might look differently had all types of IGAs been included.

Second, as the comparative investigation reveals, his set of institutional variables is well chosen in order to explain variation. Hardly surprising, he finds that the seven variables do not carry an equal weight. For example, the existence of lasting forums for intergovernmental relations turns out to be a very successful variable as it correlates with high IGA productivity in almost all cases, whereas the degree of constitutional overlap – according to Parker’s analysis – was one of the least successful variables. Also, the large number of subnational units in the United States (50) and Switzerland (26) makes it more difficult to forge an IGA than in federations such as Canada or Australia.

One can certainly pick at several aspects of Jeffrey Parker’s study. In particular, some decisions concerning the conceptual framework appear a bit flawed. For example, the degree of constitutional overlap variable is somewhat misconstrued, which becomes evident when Parker suggests that Germany has a high degree of overlap. This is misleading, because the functional allocation of competencies in Germany (federal legislation, Lander implementation) is different from real overlap in dual federations like Australia or Canada. Likewise, the way Parker uses the welfare state as an indicator for interdependence and, hence, a variable that promotes IGA productivity, tends to be superficial. Finally, it would have been good to elaborate on the question of periodical shifts of IGA productivity within individual federations, an important aspect that Parker does not address in his study.

While some criticism is warranted, however, the study’s limitations are comparatively small and do not diminish its overall contribution to comparative federalism research. Parker very carefully explains and justifies almost every step in the formation of the concept, always demonstrating a keen awareness of each decision’s possible implications. Considering the scope and qualitative nature of the study, Parker does a remarkable job, as this type of comparative research requires a considerable level of engagement with each individual country. Throughout the study, he is very anxious to remain consistent with his framework, which – and this is the flipside in terms of style – makes this book at the same time a somewhat mechanistic read that also suffers from some redundancies. Again, however, it is important to highlight that these are rather minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent study which, for various reasons, addresses an important research gap in comparative federalism.

Jörg Broschek
Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Comparative Federalism and Multilevel Governance, Wilfrid Laurier University

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 38 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-03-03