To paraphrase Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk, the government’s Liquor Retailing consultation process is looking more and more like manipulation and less and less like consultation. University of Regina Business Administration professor Dr. Sean Tucker recently released an open letter he sent to Minister Don McMorris regarding the quality of the public liquor retailing survey. Dr. Tucker raises serious concerns about the design of those survey questions and argues that any results should be “interpreted with caution given the limitations of the survey.” Dr. Tucker’s central complaint with the survey is that the government represents public liquor stores as a drain on the public purse rather than the revenue-generating assets that they actually are. The survey questions at issue frame investment in public liquor stores as a zero-sum game, as if dollars invested in building stores are dollars that will not be invested in health care, roads, schools, etc. This is highly misleading, as no taxpayer funds are required to sustain the SLGA’s liquor operations – they are entirely self-sufficient through their own revenues. Moreover, given the massive revenue return that the SLGA provides to the government ($141.3 million from retail stores alone in 2014 according to Dr. Tucker) to pay for such things as schools, hospitals and roads, to represent public stores as a liability rather than a highly lucrative public investment is government spin designed to confuse rather than inform.
However, the penchant of the government to omit pertinent information is not exclusive to the public survey. As part of the consultation process, the Government of Saskatchewan “invited key stakeholders to provide written submissions regarding their views about the future of liquor retailing in Saskatchewan.” Those submissions were then posted on the government’s consultation website. It is telling whom the government considers “key stakeholders” in this debate, based on who was invited to make a submission and who was not. According to the SLGA, the government invited nine industry groups to make submissions, along with the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police, SGEU, SUMA, SARM and MADD (not all invitees submitted). There is no doubt that all are legitimate stakeholders in this debate. The question is whom have been left out and why? For instance, noticeably absent is any public health voice whatsoever. Indeed, no opinion was sought from either public health officials, addictions services or mental health professionals, despite the very real health concerns that usually accompany alcohol-related public policy change. Indeed, public health officers and other health professionals are a regular part of public debate regarding liquor retailing in every other province, so why not here? The failure to even seek an opinion from public health officials on liquor privatization appears to only confirm the government’s long-standing position that liquor privatization produces no negative social harms – despite a mountain of public health evidence to the contrary. While the government can dismiss this evidence at its peril, it owes it to the public to seek the broadest spectrum of opinion when conducting a province-wide consultation that ultimately seeks to drive public policy. Stacking the deck with sympathetic opinions may be clever politics, but it does a disservice to democratic debate.
Full disclosure: CCPA Saskatchewan was not invited to make a submission to the government. We did anyway. It was not published.
Simon Enoch is Director of CCPA-Saskatchewan. Follow Simon on Twitter at @Simon_Enoch.