Queen Elizabeth II died yesterday, after reigning for 70 years. However you feel about monarchies in general, the British Monarchy has been one of the most stable institutions in living memory, in large part thanks to Elizabeth’s own steadfast and disciplined reign. Anyone who aspires to leadership has a lot to learn from her, but some of her wisdom is particularly applicable at a municipal level, for a few reasons:
First of all, she was a figurehead over government systems that function almost entirely independent of her. She had much influence, but very little actual power. That’s also true of municipal governments, and especially the Mayor. People often look to their Councillors or Mayor to have a direct hand in municipal affairs, but the reality is that municipal staff handle all of the day-to-day affairs, prepare the budgets, and make recommendations on matters of policy and planning. Almost everything Council addresses will have already come through Staff, and will come with a Staff recommendation based on their expertise and information. Council’s job when it comes to approvals is to review Staff recommendations and ensure that they meet the needs of the community, representing the community; and then communicate that decision to the community, representing the municipality. The Mayor in particular: far from being “in charge”, the Mayor often doesn’t even vote except to break a tie! (Technically every member of Council votes every time: even not voting is counted as a negative vote, but some Mayors vote with the majority as a rule. Not all votes are recorded, so the “official” status of the Mayor’s vote is only at issue when there has been a request to record the vote. Some Mayors will voice their disagreement with the majority by asking to record their vote as Abstaining, so that their disagreement is recorded along with their automatically negative vote without contradicting the rest of Council’s decision. This sentiment of not wanting the head of Council to dominate or unduly influence it is not universal–the Mayor is as entitled to their vote as any other member–but it is common.)
The lesson to learn here is how to handle the representative function of the office, embodying the dignity of the institution and the dignity of the people. To respect the expertise of those who have made decisions or recommendations, even if they recommend something other than what you’d prefer. How many times, I wonder, did Elizabeth roll her eyes in private at what was happening in Parliament? How many times did she shudder when a new Prime Minister was voted in, knowing she would have to give a blessing to someone she thought less than fit for the responsibility; or give assent to legislation she thought was frivolous or even disastrous? But she knew that she was the embodiment and guardian of the process, and she didn’t denigrate that process even when she disagreed with its results.
It might be tempting for a Councillor or candidate to deride a Council decision. We need to always remember to address the system that produced that decision: we aren’t just criticizing Council, but the Staff that recommended that decision, and more importantly, the process that Staff followed to arrive at their recommendations. Then we can do our best to embody the Queen’s dignity as we promote the values our processes are supposed to embody and safeguard, and if necessary, change those processes to get better results (something the Queen was never free to do).
Second, Elizabeth served as a signpost that pointed to the best qualities of her subjects. She strove to embody the qualities of nobility and to steward the trust of her subjects, and her public addresses (especially her Christmas message) were always in service of uniting people behind their shared values and ideals. As Queen she represented the history and tradition of her people, and served as a touchstone and source of stability through societal change.
I think that a municipal Council should also strive to unite the community behind our shared values. That means putting aside personal conflicts and divisive approaches, and maintaining focus and perspective on what matters most. While a Queen is oriented to the past, I think that a Council should be oriented to the future, to a vision of the community that they can communicate and return to as they make each decision on the community’s behalf.
The Queen’s Christmas messages always managed to be both timeless and timely: she addressed current events, but always in relation to that vision of what the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth ought truly to be. Her consistency and clarity created a sense of continuity even in tumultuous times. A good Councillor will do likewise.
Third, the Queen knew the difference between power and influence. As a figurehead, she formally gave away all power to Parliament. Her authority was symbolic: she had little more actual power than any other citizen. But her influence was vast: her words carried weight around the world, in almost any context. She recognized the power of that, limiting her own ability to comment on the world so as to avoid unduly influencing the political processes she no longer controlled. At the same time, though, she devoted herself to causes that were important to her, using her influence to support peace and unity throughout the Commonwealth and the world. Members of her family were even more outspoken for causes, as they didn’t have to worry about the appearance of power in their lesser roles. (Charles has supposedly said he will back off from his advocacy work now that he is King.)
The lesson here is to know your role: all Councillors have limited power and authority, and should know how best to use their influence. That means knowing when to show restraint and discretion as much as when to embody the authority of their office.
A big way I see this playing out is through matters of jurisdiction. Many residents don’t know the line between provincial and municipal authority or jurisdiction, but a Councillor needs to know and faithfully represent that difference. If there is an issue that is provincially regulated, we should tell our residents as much, and help them access their provincial representatives. BUT, we should also be aware of any way that the issue can be addressed from a municipal perspective, as well as recognizing that while we don’t have power at a provincial level, we still have influence. Our advocacy for our residents often carries more weight than the resident’s on their own.
A good example of this is a recent County Council meeting regarding the issue of homelessness and housing. The Municipality of Cobourg brought a delegation to County Council, acknowledging that the County has the jurisdiction to address the issue most effectively but also pledging to work with them through whatever powers were available at the lower-tier municipal level. Cobourg’s Council wanted to work across that jurisdictional line, with each level using its own authority to work in concert with each other and better address the issue. I brought a delegation in support of taking greater action using an inter-jurisdictional approach. Sadly, County Council disregarded all delegations on the issue, and did not resolve to do anything. Rather than acknowledging the limits of their authority as the basis for greater collaboration, County Council used the limits of their authority as an excuse to do nothing. Their ability to influence both lower-tier municipal governments and the provincial government were not considered, much less their authority to do more at the County level itself.
What about you? What lessons do you draw from Queen Elizabeth II? What wisdom would you like to see in your Councillors?