Unilateral Action with Particular Interests

… a core term used in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Schertzer, McDougall, and Skogstad (reference below) describe unilateral action with particular interests as one of the three approaches to intergovernmental relations.

They summarize their framework of approaches (p. 3) as:

Intergovernmental Approach
Distinguishing features (Norms, Institutions, Outputs)
Multilateral Collaboration High level of FPT engagement based on equality of orders and norms of co-ownership of policy field through strong FPT institutions.

Outputs show diffuse reciprocity.

Bilateral Negotiation Federal-single province dynamic, with joint ownership of a policy field based on equality of orders, but with recognition of the unique federal-provincial relationship.

Outputs show specific reciprocity.

Unilateral Action Strong sense that a government can legitimately act on its own in a policy area, even if it impacts another government without consultation.

Outputs show particular interests.

Schertzer, McDougall, and Skogstad describe (p. 4-5) the unilateral action with particular interests approach as follows:

“On the other end of the spectrum are those instances where governments operate largely independently of one another, on a more unilateral basis. Such unilateral action can take two broad forms: governments undertaking the development and implementation of policy in an area understood as largely within their exclusive responsibility (McRoberts 1985); or, one order of government unilaterally taking action understanding that it will significantly impact the other order of government. The line between these two aspects of unilateralism in IGR is not as clear as it may seem: despite the formally exclusive nature of most federal-provincial areas of responsibility, there is widespread recognition in practice that there is considerable overlap. This recognition, that in most instances federal and provincial areas of concern inherently touch on the other order’s interests, brings even unilateral action into the gambit of IGR.

“Unilateral action is thus underpinned by a normative position that stresses the importance and value of the formally exclusive and autonomous nature of each government’s jurisdiction. This approach to IGR can also reflect, on the federal side, a hierarchical understanding of the federation whereby the Government of Canada has a role to develop and implement pan-Canadian policy even if doing so impacts provincial autonomy (through mechanisms such as the spending power or invoking the concept of federal paramountcy). On the provincial side, unilateral action can reflect a normative commitment to the provincial government protecting the interests and values of its provincial community within the federal system. The actual processes of unilateral action within IGR are clearly identifiable: announcements, policy or legislation directed by a single government. At times, circumspect bilateral or multilateral consultation between the orders of government can play a role in shaping the final outcome. The outcomes of these actions, while generally within the legal power of one order of government to implement, may also result in the engagement of other forms of IGR (for example, facilitating subsequent bilateral or multilateral consultation to implement initiatives). Depending on the order of government carrying out the unilateral action, the outcomes can reflect either a considerable pan-Canadian focus (if taken by the federal government) or a specifically regional view (if taken by a province).”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Federalism (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Schertzer, R. McDougall, A. and Skogstad, G. (2016), “Collaboration and Unilateralism: Explaining recent dynamics of intergovernmental relations in Canada,” Working Paper, Presented at Canadian Political Science Association Annual Conference, 2016. References in the cited paragraph are:

McRoberts, Kenneth. 1985. “Unilateralism, Bilateralism and Multilateralism: Approaches to Canadian Federalism.” in Intergovernmental Relations, ed. Richard Simeon. Toronto: University of Toronto Press & Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 6 September 2016.