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  • Jul 12, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

Franklin Lam case raises doubts about Exco role

Stephen Vines says Lam affair raises troubling questions about Exco's role

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:56am

Let us assume for one moment that Franklin Lam Fan-keung, the most recent of the scandal-hit government appointees, has a perfectly believable story, namely that when selling two properties just before new measures were announced to cool prices in the residential market, he had no prior inside knowledge of these measures despite being a member of the Executive Council.

If this is so, what does it tell us about the function of the government's most senior advisory body?

The Basic Law states that the chief executive shall consult Exco before making important policy decisions. It is hard to imagine that a crucial decision about how the property market is regulated can be described as anything other than important. Yet if Lam's story is true, Exco was bypassed.

The council does not have executive powers - these are vested exclusively with the chief executive himself - but it is supposed to advise. Lam can only have been chosen for membership on the basis of his considerable knowledge of the property industry, yet we are told that when the government was thinking about cooling measures, it chose not to speak to the Exco member most qualified to furnish advice.

If this is so, it remains very unclear what purpose Exco serves. The Basic Law suggests its role is important but does not spell out the extent of this importance and its members are assumed to have a higher status in the government pecking order than the largely powerless members of the legislature, even though they have no electoral mandate, notwithstanding the fact that three were plucked from the lower chamber to sit at the Exco table.

As matters stand, Exco membership is equally divided between 16 so-called "official" members, in other words, government ministers, and 16 "non-official" members, who are not in the government, although four of them have been there not so long ago. The membership of non-officials is heavily biased towards the business and finance sector, which accounts for over a third of the seats, leaving two for leftist party members and the traditional seat for the Heung Yee Kuk.

Only one of the non-official members, Anna Wu Hung-yuk, has a democratic background and she appears to be increasingly deployed as the acceptable face of Exco, charged with tasks that others either shirk or are deemed unable to perform.

Other members remain deservedly obscure and appear to have been appointed for political reasons. They hardly reflect any kind of support in the community for their positions because Exco is designed to preserve the status quo, not challenge it.

Were the status quo problem-free and even vaguely coming up to public expectations, this would not matter greatly. However, this is far from being the case and we find Leung Chung-ying, like his two predecessors, surrounding himself with people who will not challenge whatever policy is spewed out of the slow-churning bureaucratic machine.

It may be argued that governing councils around the world are largely similar to the one found here. In the US, no cabinet member is elected, whereas in Europe most cabinets are entirely composed of ruling-party members or close supporters. However, in both systems, the executive is led by an elected chief and constrained by strong legislatures also armed with an elected mandate. Even if these legislatures do not manage to change government policy, they exercise a powerful discipline on administrations.

In Hong Kong, the executive faces the blunderbuss of a legislature capable only of blocking funding requests, but it can and does largely ignore all attempts to amend legislation or even permit legislative initiatives from anyone outside government. Thus, at least in theory, the quality of advice from Exco becomes more crucial and its role as the font of independent thought in a bureaucratically dominated system could be significant.

However, we now learn from the Franklin Lam affair that even a tame Exco is not consulted over vital policy matters until decisions have been taken. If this turns out not to be true, Lam is in even bigger trouble. But if it is true, Leung is the one with big trouble.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur


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