How the Executive Council lost its voice and power
Tainted by scandal and dismissed as essentially powerless by Legco's president, Exco's role as a policymaking body is under scrutiny, with some urging an overhaul to restore its credibility
"During British rule, the Executive Council was a body with actual power. [Its members] had a strong say in front of the governor; their words carried a lot of weight … we can't see the Executive Council performing the same function."
Those were the lamentations of Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who weighed in last month after the collapse of then-executive councillor Barry Cheung Chun-yuen's Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange sparked an intense debate over Exco's function.
At the heart of the controversy is whether the city's policymaking authority should remain a league of policy advisers, or bring in political party chiefs.
Tsang, who sat on the Executive Council under chief executives Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, proposed that the government launch a review, because the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution, only states the main responsibilities of Exco and "left much space for reform".
The Basic Law stipulates that Exco is the body for assisting the chief executive in policymaking, its members to be appointed from officials, lawmakers and public figures who should be consulted before the chief executive makes policy decisions and introduces bills to Legco.
If the chief executive does not accept the opinion of a majority on Exco, he must put the specific reasons for doing so on record.
While Exco appears authoritative and rule-bound, its credibility was seriously questioned after police launched an investigation into Cheung, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's top aide.
The inquiry came six months after Franklin Lam Fan-keung, another Exco member, was given leave of absence after graft-busters put him under investigation over allegations that he used inside information when deciding to sell two Mid-Levels flats.
Former executive councillor James Tien Pei-chun and former government adviser Professor Lau Siu-kai have suggested, among other proposals, that the Executive Council should be turned into a league of political party chiefs - to help the government secure Legco's support for its policies.
Tien suggested the move could also help boost Exco's popularity.
During colonial days, the executive council was drawn from the business and professional elites; for example, during the term of Chris Patten, the last governor, its members included HSBC non-executive deputy chairman Lydia Dunn and Queen's Counsel Andrew Li Kwok-nang, who became the first chief justice after the 1997 handover.
However, according to a University of Hong Kong poll released shortly before Cheung's resignation in May, two-thirds of 540 respondents said they could not name any of the then 16 non-official executive councillors, who make up half of Exco.
Tien, who was appointed a non-official Exco member in 2002 while Liberal Party chairman, believes Tung's introduction of the ministerial system that year, and Donald Tsang's U-turn in appointing eight veteran politicians and business leaders in 2005, were turning points which weakened Exco's authority.
After the handover, Tung referred to the colonial practice and appointed 11 non-official executive councilors, including lawmaker Tam Yiu-chung and Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive.
Tung, together with the justice, financial and chief secretaries, were then the only official members.
But the rule was overthrown in 2002, when Tung introduced the ministerial system so that politically accountable officials, rather than civil servants, would head 11 policy bureaus and dominate Exco.
Only five non-official councillors, one of them Tien, were appointed.
"[Before 2002,] without the ministers, the civil servants raised their opinions before decisions were made in Exco," Tien explained. "Nowadays the ministers make a decision, explain it to the media, lobby the people and table it in Legco before [asking] Exco for a decision … so what role does Exco play?"
Despite such reservations, Tien believes Exco's structure under Tung at least ensured a critical role for the party chiefs, and could be a model for the Executive Council in future. Leung should boost the role of political parties in Exco to that of policy sentinels, Tien stressed.
"Nowadays … as the parties lack influence in Exco, they cannot [block policy proposals] based on opinions gathered from the people, business chambers and professional bodies. So when problems arise, there is no one to defend [the government]." Tien's resignation from the Executive Council in 2003 forced the government to shelve controversial national security legislation that triggered a 500,000-strong protest march.
Currently only four of the 15 non-official Exco members have a clear party affiliation.
Professor Lau Siu-kai, former head of the Central Policy Unit think tank, raised three proposals last week for shaking up the Executive Council scrapping non-official members; appointing prominent leaders to boost Exco's popularity; or keeping non-official councillors but making lobbying for lawmakers' support a priority.
Tien hinted that only the latter proposal would work, as firing non-official councillors would defeat Exco's purpose, while elitism could be anachronistic.
Referring to Donald Tsang's appointment of veterans including Ronald Arculli in October 2005, Tien asked "what function did Arculli perform in Exco? He left the battlefield five years earlier … It just diluted the parties' power."
Arculli stepped down as a lawmaker in 2000.
Tsang's Exco revamp in 2005 was regarded as an attempt to boost his popularity, but judging by HKU's opinion polls, it proved to be of little help; by December 2008, three years after the appointments, Tsang's popularity had fallen from 68.2 points out of 100 to an alarming 50.2 points.
His appointment of new non-official councillors a month later dealt another blow to his image; the addition to Exco of Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat was condemned as payback for the rural lobby's support of Tsang's election campaign in 2007.
As part of his successful bid for election last year, Leung pledged to reinforce the functions of the Executive Council and enhance the participation of non-official members.
But his appointment of key supporters such as Cheung and Lam as executive councillors last year triggered a public outcry over perceived nepotism.
Allen Lee Peng-fei, who served as an executive councillor from 1986 to 1992, criticises Exco in Leung's era for having degenerated into a platform for granting favours to his allies, and for the fact Leung appeared to care little about the capabilities of the people he appointed.
"I was told by an Exco member that he disagreed with the curbs on the amount of baby milk formula travellers were allowed to take across the border. But he dared not say 'no' at an Exco meeting," Lee said.
However, Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong, who served in the government for more than three decades, told a television interviewer this week that Exco's problem is more deeply rooted in the chief executive's lack of mandate.
"It's a deadlock," Lam lamented. "[We have 1,193] electors who chose the chief executive, while half of the legislature was elected by more than three million voters … to solve the problem, we must start with the political system."
He admitted that some bureaus failed to make details of policy proposals clear to executive councillors until a very late stage.
EXCO ROLL CALL
KEY EXCO MEMBERS SINCE THE 1990s:
CHRIS PATTEN'S EXCO
Lydia Dunn; Denis Chang; Andrew Li Kwok-nang
TUNG CHEE-HWA'S EXCO (1997)
Tam Yiu-chung; Yang Ti-liang (pre-handover Chief Justice of Hong Kong); Antony Leung Kam-chung (became financial secretary in 2001)
TUNG CHEE-HWA'S EXCO (2002)
Jasper Tsang Yok-sing; James Tien Pei-chun; Cheng Yiu-tong
DONALD TSANG YAM-KUEN'S EXCO (2005)
Ronald Arculli; Dr Leong Che-hung; Anthony Cheung Bing-leung
LEUNG CHUN-YING'S EXCO (2012)
Barry Cheung Chun-yuen; Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun; Franklin Lam Fan-keung