What purpose is served by the Executive Council? This question comes into sharp focus in the wake of the current TV licensing debacle.
Executive councils were an integral part of the British colonial system, established to ensure governors had the local elite on their side and to provide yet more opportunities to reward allies with the trappings of high office. Notably in Hong Kong, the old executive councils also gave the biggest colonial companies a seat at the top table to ensure the preservation of their interests.
Since their establishment, Excos have largely comprised of senior bureaucrats who run government departments. They are rarely prepared to put their careers on the line by upsetting their bosses, so it is safe to assume that, generally speaking, the advice they proffer is what the boss wants to hear.
No wonder this system appealed to Beijing and the old Exco was incorporated into the new constitution. The Basic Law, however, sheds little light on its functions, merely saying that it "shall be an organ for assisting the Chief Executive in policy-making".
There is now intense controversy over whether its members supported, opposed or even seriously considered the new TV licensing regime that has sparked mass protests. One member, Laura Cha Shih May-lung, has a conflict of interest on this matter but the black-box style of governance favoured by the Leung Chun-ying regime will not even reveal whether this was declared.
Most members of the current Exco, like those of previous councils, are little more than time-servers whose main asset is their loyalty to the chief executive. This situation is not so very different from that which prevailed in the past.
To be fair to Leung, he appointed Lam Woon-kwong as convenor of his Exco. Lam has proved to be independently minded and showed some spirit in leading the Equal Opportunities Commission. It is also possible to make the case for the independence of thought of two other Exco members: Anna Wu Hung-yuk and Bernard Chan. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a wild card but reserves her independence of mind to focus on personal ambitions.
So, in theory, the current Exco has the potential to provide a better source of advice than its predecessors. The important caveat is that, under the Basic Law, the chief executive is not obliged to accept their advice but members, by convention, are obliged to back whatever policy he pursues.
It is rumoured that there was dissent in Exco over the TV licensing decision. It is equally possible that the government's policy simply went through on the nod.
Whatever the truth, the only tangible evidence we have of the fruits of the current Exco's labours is a series of disasters, ranging from the national education debacle to the more personal issues of dealing with corrupt officials and Leung's own illegal structures.
If it is the case that sensible advice was offered by Exco members and that it has been ignored by the chief executive, why are those who gave this advice still members? However, it may be that Exco members either did not spot the political minefields the chief executive intended to ignite or, if they did, kept silent. If this is so, they are worse than useless.
The system does not work now, and might not do so in the unlikely event that a democratic system is devised for electing the chief executive soon. Bereft of the proper checks and balances combined with genuine accountability that make governments function better, Exco is likely to remain an obstacle to good administration and even more likely to continue being the kind of running farce that it is today.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur