(This column was published in the North Shore News on June 5, 2002)

 

Privatize liquor business

 By Leo Knight

ONE of the positive acts undertaken by the B.C. Liberal government of Gordon Campbell is the changes to the ancient, overly complicated Liquor Control and Licensing Act.

 

The act was so archaic, it made big labour look positively progressive. There were more than enough regulations and restrictions to make a bureaucrat's heart fairly leap in anticipation of the confusion potential.

 

Campbell's government made, as a significant plank in their election platform, the singular promise to dramatically reduce bureaucratic red tape. Their review of the liquor act is a direct result of that promise.

 

The big winner in the review is, of course, the average British Columbian, the consumer, who spends a few after tax dollars on a simple pleasure. But, despite the best intentions of the provincial government, I'm not entirely sure they have gone far enough. And, in one area at least, I fear they may have gone a bit too far.

 

Part of the problem is Campbell is trying to keep all sides happy. That may sound strange when talking of the man who seems to have inspired blind hatred from members of the B.C. Fed and the assorted brotherhood. But, Campbell is trying to do what is right for the majority of British Columbians, not just the special few, which was a hallmark of three successive NDP administrations.

 

Allow me to explain.

 

For so many decades this province has been a joke for the manner we enacted and enforced a myriad of liquor laws. Only so many seats allowed inside the red area. "No, it doesn't matter what the fire marshall says, it's my empire now!"

 

Can't have too many TVs, or even if within the limits, perish the thought they might be too big, lest we actually encourage someone to come in and partake of the hospitality of someone in the hospitality industry. There were more regulations for liquor licences than Carter has little liver pills.

 

Much of that nonsense has now been eliminated with the government announcement of last month. And that's a good thing. But, I wonder if a little too much consultation has gone into the new regulations.

 

For example, the government is staying in the liquor business, at least for the time being. This is not good. The traditional government liquor store is a highly inefficient, expensive union environment.

 

The cost to the consumer of maintaining such a monolithic structure is huge. Consider a few examples. A bottle of Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon costs $18.95 here in British Columbia. The same Australian produced product can be purchased for as little as $10.65 up to about $13.95 in Edmonton or Calgary, which has privatized its retail liquor outlets. Lest anyone wish to argue, I have the receipts for purchases within the past month to verify this.

 

The difference of as much as 40-50 per cent is nothing more than union wage rates and benefits. There is no extra money into the public purse. Revenue from the various taxes are similar in both provinces and are both collected regardless of whether the product is sold by public or private entities.

 

The margins are not the same with all products, but they are dramatic in things like beer, wines, premiums whiskies and other premium liquors. In other words, the most popular products.

 

Equally, there are only a few government liquor stores, forcing people to drive a considerable distance simply to acquire one's favourite tipple.

 

How far, for example, does a Deep Cove resident need to travel at, say, nine o'clock on a Friday night to get a bottle of Belvedere vodka ($29.95-$31.95 in Alberta, $44.95 in British Columbia) to make some martinis for dinner guests? Well, I've never measured the distance to Westview from the Cove, but I know it's at least a 15-minute drive each way.

 

In most Alberta urban neighbourhoods, that distance might only be a few blocks. Walking distance in many cases. Which seems to make a whole lot more sense to me than opening up the possibility of someone on the borderline getting behind the wheel of a car in order to top up.

 

The B.C. Liberals have moved to dramatically eliminate many of the restrictions that have choked the hospitality industry. However, in leaving the government in the retail liquor business, one of the biggest monuments to inefficiency contained in the old legislation still hangs around.

 

It is reasonable for the government to regulate and tax the sale of alcohol. But opening it up to the private sector is a long overdue opportunity Campbell's government seems to have passed on.

 

Ralph Klein's government did not miss that opportunity, much to the benefit of Alberta consumers without adversely affecting the public purse.

 

Next week, we'll look at the opposite side of the equation. In at least one part of this review of the liquor legislation, the B.C. Liberal government may have gone too far in their changes.

 

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