ADELAIDE - One of the many challenges confronted when attempting to understand the flow of history is securing a broad consensus on what the agreed facts are and then, usually only after a good deal of argument, how the facts should be interpreted.
I mention this because recently I made the mistake of inserting myself into a debate about the forthcoming (or maybe not) Brexit, whereby Britain exits the European Union.
My mistake was, as a disinterested observer, to offer the view that there were some pretty significant issues with the structure and ultimate objectives of the EU which the so-called Remainers seem to studiously ignore when prosecuting their case. I was rather promptly and forcefully told that this was not the case and that everything was just wonderful with the EU.
I suppose if I had offered a view that the so-called Brexiteers are ignoring a lot that is good and worthwhile about the EU I doubtless would have been promptly howled down in much the same manner.
You see, the yelling match over whether or not, let alone how, Britain exits the EU is being conducted without any apparent reference to an agreed body of facts, let alone how they should be interpreted. The emotions felt by the combatants have long since overwhelmed any attempt to discuss the matter dispassionately.
The result of this is on display on a daily basis, with the British government under siege from within and without as it desperately tries to secure agreement on an exit strategy.
It seems to me that the big picture issue entirely missing in the debate is that the EU as currently configured is a stepping stone towards a truly Federal government of Europe and thus the creation of a United States of Europe. No-one seems to have said this explicitly of course, but it is a reasonable inference to draw.
One of the reasons for the silence on the logical end point of the EU process may well be that the creation of a Federation as it is understood and configured in countries like the USA, Canada and Australia requires that the member states voluntarily and explicitly subordinate themselves to a Federal authority in some form or another.
My belief is that the Brexiteers understand this rather better than the Remainers, hence their obsession with national sovereignty and, sometimes at least, rampant xenophobia and even plain racism.
All this caused me to think about just how the current handful of Federations came into existence and whether such a model might be made to work in Europe and other highly tribalised places as well, including Papua New Guinea.
It may surprise some readers to learn that modern Germany is a Federation of 16 states which have a good deal of discretion to run their own affairs.
The Federal government has clear constitutional responsibilities for things like defence, foreign affairs, customs and excise, immigration and so forth, while things like health, education and culture remain under state control.
The current German model was effectively imposed by the Allied powers in the aftermath of World War II but appears to enjoy very broad support within Germany. The trauma of the war and allied military power effectively neutralised any resistance to the imposition of this federal structure which, in any event, was broadly consistent with how Germany had historically been governed.
The USA is another country with a Federal model of governance. It came into existence as a nation in the aftermath of the War of Independence (1775-83) when it ceased to be a British colonial possession.
Initially, the federal structure was very loose, with states having a high degree of autonomy. In the mid-19th century serious tension arose between those states that allowed slavery and those that did not. This tension initially manifested itself as a dispute over the extent of states rights vis a vis the Federal government.
Eventually, it caused a number of southern states which relied upon slave labor to attempt to secede from the union which, in turn, led to the Civil War that raged from 1861 to 1865.
The victory of the union forces, in what was an exceptionally bloody, industrial scale war, established once and for all the primacy of the US federal government, although states continued to have a relatively high degree of legislative discretion in many areas.
Australia made a conscious decision to become a federation because it made sense for the six small and isolated colonies to do so for defence, foreign affairs and trade matters.
That said, the process of developing a draft constitution to take to the people in a nationwide plebiscite was long and tortuous. Serious ideological and policy differences over trade between New South Wales and Victoria hugely delayed and complicated the negotiations but, eventually, agreement was reached.
Initially, Western Australia was reluctant to join the new commonwealth but eventually recognised that going it alone was not viable in the longer term. The other colonies promised to build a transcontinental railway to link Western Australia to the east coast, thus overcoming fears about being completely isolated from the new country’s centres of power.
New Zealand opted not to join the new commonwealth, preferring to go its own way. The Australian constitution still contains provisions that would enable NZ to join, but this seems improbable now.
Canada became a Federation in 1867, well before Australia. In fact, Canada’s constitutional arrangements were a model for those eventually adopted by Australia.
Like Australia, Canada is a huge, diverse and sparsely settled country. Unlike Australia, it has a large population of people with a French cultural background, most of who live in the province of Quebec. French continues to be very widely spoken and used in Quebec, ranking above English as the province’s official language.
This situation has, at times, produced serious political and cultural strains within Canada as Quebec separatists have sought to secure sufficient political support to become an independent country. Secessionist support within Quebec has waned considerably since its peak in the mid 1990’s but is by no means extinguished.
It is pretty clear that there are viable models for establishing workable federal states but equally clear that this is not necessarily easy to do. It is also fairly clear that the most successful of these states have some common characteristics.
The first is that most of them, initially at least, were neither culturally and linguistically highly diverse. The relatively homogenous nature of the nascent federations meant that the focus of negotiations could largely be upon practical constitutional and governance issues rather than accommodating very marked ethnic or regional differences.
In the case of the USA, Australia and Canada, the rights, needs and aspirations of the indigenous populations were either given scant attention or entirely ignored.
The second is that the individual constituent states had to explicitly subordinate themselves to the power of the Federal government in at least certain specified areas. Thus their sovereignty was irrevocably diminished and constrained.
Subsequently, in all the examples I have given, the power of the federal government has steadily increased over time, mainly through a succession of legal decisions about the meaning and effect of the constitution. It appears that the supreme or high courts established under federal constitutions have an apparently natural tendency to interpret constitutional provisions in ways that increase the power of the Federal government relative to those of the states.
Thirdly, despite the immediately preceding comment, states continue to be able to exert significant political pressure on Federal governments, especially if they act in concert. This arises from the fact that state governments enjoy political legitimacy in their own right, thus empowering them to pursue important state issues whilst enjoying broad support from their own electorate.
As a general rule, federal governments try to avoid offending states (especially the large ones) on major issues for fear of damaging their own political support base. Such damage can have serious electoral consequences, especially in the case of a Senate which has state or provincial based representation.
Fourth, the actually governance of a federation is invariably quite complex and difficult because so many jurisdictions have an interest in the process. Negotiations within and between the different levels of government can be complex, difficult and protracted. There is an emphasis on achieving consensus where ever possible because unilateral action has a nasty habit of back firing badly.
I think that it could.
This would require, at a minimum, the creation of a senate with, say, three senators from each member province, whose specific responsibility is to attend to the interests of their province as a whole, not any particular group within it.
Senators ought to be barred from forming any part of the government in order to prevent their easy subversion by party interests, who would certainly offer lucrative appointments in return for their support.
The senate should also be specifically required to pass certain money bills, thus ensuring that the lawfully constituted government cannot be held to ransom by refusal of supply. All other bills would require senate approval, thus ensuring that it is no paper tiger.
The provinces themselves would need to have their powers clearly defined in the constitution, not merely spelled out in some memorandum of understanding or similar document, which would be all too easy to repudiate or ignore.
To prevent the constitution from becoming merely the plaything of the government of the day, it should be a requirement that amendments to it must be supported by a not less than two thirds majority of a combined sitting of the house of representatives and the senate, plus the support of not less than two thirds of the provincial legislatures.
This is a tough test but necessary to prevent governments from manipulating the constitution to meet its political needs.
The selection of the governor general should be by a two thirds majority of the combined parliament after due consideration of three candidates nominated by the government of the day. Failure to secure a two thirds majority for any candidate would require the government to submit a new panel of names for consideration. This would go on until such time is the required majority is achieved.
The important point is that a genuinely federal system would allow for the needs and aspirations of the provinces to be more transparently and effectively balanced against those of the nation as a whole.
Right now, this process is murky to say the least and highly susceptible to manipulation and mischief.
Of course, what I am proposing will doubtless fall short of perfection but it offers some hope that the governance of the country can be greatly improved and higher levels of transparency and accountability achieved.
History suggests that federal governance structures offer opportunities to achieve a fairer and more dispersed form of political power, albeit at the cost of efficiency in some cases.
This is a price worth paying if the effect is to enable aspiring autocrats like Donald Trump (or, perhaps, Peter O’Neill) to be brought to heel, even if the process involved is both painful and protracted.
As for the United States of Europe, the Brexit debacle suggests that, at best, the creation of such an entity lies far in the future.