As the debate over liquor privatization in Saskatchewan begins to heat up, a common refrain from the current government is that arguments for the superior social responsibility of the public system unfairly impugns the integrity of private sellers. Admonishing NDP leader Cam Broten on his twitter account, Premier Brad Wall asked why the NDP “insult hundreds in SK who serve/retail alcohol by implying they’re not as responsible as those in gov stores.” Now, there is ample evidence that the majority of public liquor stores exercise a more robust system of liquor law compliance and enforcement than that of private stores. This is not to argue that private stores cannot or could not implement the same sort of rigorous system of compliance as that of public stores given stringent government monitoring and enforcement. Rather it is an argument that private stores will always have the very powerful imperative of economic survival working against them. Private retailers have a very obvious self-interest in increasing alcohol consumption – that’s their business. Private liquor retailing creates a conflict between the individual retailer’s drive to increase sales and society’s desire to limit liquor availability to vulnerable populations. As Wayne Henuset – owner of Willow Park Wines and Spirits remarked in response to widespread violations in Alberta:
“We turn somebody away, but then they find a store that needs money so much they’ll sell to anybody – a drunk or a teenager, it doesn’t matter…Do you think they can afford to turn away somebody with money to spend? They can’t…”
We have witnessed a similar conflict between profits and adherence to the law play out in Saskatoon, where private wine seller Cava was stripped of its’ license after it tried to circumvent the SLGA and Saskatchewan taxpayers to the tune of $100,000. Now many critics might argue that there is no reason why a well-regulated private sector cannot achieve the same social responsibility goals as that of the public system, even despite the economic imperative that appear to work against it. Certainly that seems to be the Premier’s argument. But one other consequence of privatization that is rarely considered is that it will create a very powerful political constituency that – like any other business lobby – will seek to advance its own economic interests that may not always be in agreement with the public’s interest in social responsibility.
In order to get a sense of what a private liquor lobby will attempt to accomplish here in Saskatchewan, let’s take a look at other jurisdictions where an active liquor lobby seeks to influence government regulation of alcohol.
Given that Alberta is so often held up as a model of liquor privatization, let’s begin with that province’s premier liquor store lobby, the Alberta Liquor Store Association (ALSA). Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin calls the ALSA “the most successful government lobby group in Alberta today.” Indeed the lobby has demonstrated its clout and influence on numerous occasions, forcing the government to reverse or rescind policies deemed hostile to ALSA’s interests. They forced the Klein government to reverse its decision to allow grocery stores to carry liquor in as little as 72 hours. They successfully lobbied for a ban on all supermarket signage on stand-alone liquor outlets for three years. They even attempted to have the government place a ban on liquor stores on aboriginal reserves – regardless of the band’s wishes. Most significantly, they managed to convince the Stelmach government to reverse a liquor tax increase that would have added $180 million to public coffers at a time when the Alberta treasury was billions of dollars in debt. Certainly ALSA has been a relentless advocate for its’ members interests, particularly in opposing the sale of liquor in grocery and convenience stores. The irony here is particularly rich, while the liquor store lobby loves to tout the greater convenience of private stores in comparison to public stores, their advocacy for increased consumer convenience evaporates when confronted with the possibility of liquor sales in supermarkets, convenience stores or gas stations. Under this scenario, the liquor store lobby adopt all the arguments of those opposed to privatization, citing the potential for increased sales to minors, higher crime and diminished public safety.
B.C’s liquor store lobby – Alliance of Beverage Licensees (ABLE) – while not as seasoned as ALSA, has nevertheless also demonstrated its profound influence over that province’s government. Since its inception, the Alliance has successfully lobbied to ease restrictions on liquor store re-locations and advertising along with a $30 million tax-payer subsidized price cut from the government. Most troubling however, has been ABLE’s lobbying to reduce the effectiveness of “Grant’s Law” – legislation designed to protect late-night workers. According to The Tyee, representatives of the liquor lobby “objected to the definition of night hours and the regulatory requirement that they provide a physical barrier between clerks working alone at night and customers.” After meeting with ABLE, Worksafe BC “changed the hours covered by the new safety rules so that the starting time fell after the liquor stores close.” Retailers will also be given another year before they have to erect barriers to protect clerks. Responding to the regulatory changes, Grant’s Law advocate Doug DePatie bemoaned the watering down of protections, arguing that “safety should be the bottom line, not profits.”
Should Saskatchewan follow the same path as B.C. and Alberta, it should expect the creation of a similar liquor lobby that will advance the same sort of policies as those detailed above. Whether the policies advocated above were in the public’s best interest is up to the reader to judge. Like any other business, private liquor will seek to advance its own economic interests through public policy. Indeed, Alberta-based liquor companies like Liquor Stores GP and Willow Park are already making regular contributions to the Saskatchewan Party in anticipation of a more liberalized liquor environment. The reality is that the particular interests of the private liquor industry will invariably come into conflict with the public interest. Currently, under our public system, concerns such as public health, protection of minors, accessibility and availability can take priority in public policy. Will we be able to continue to make such issues a priority in the face of a financially powerful liquor lobby determined to advance its own interests?
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.