Raise a glass to Alberta's liquor policy

Flaherty, who at least has the guts to talk revolutionary policy while apparent front-runner Ernie Eves coasts along on his confident lead, has the right idea of a privatization litmus test: If it's in the Yellow Pages, it has no place in the government directory.

The National Post
February 27, 2002

Raise a glass to Alberta's liquor policy
Don Martin


OTTAWA - He's hot on sheltering the homeless and bullish on selling booze, so here's some free advice for one of the candidates who wants to be Ontario's next premier: Jim Flaherty, meet Ralph Klein.

OK, perhaps it's not going to be the perfect match if Flaherty wins.

The Ontario Minister of Finance is campaigning to force the homeless off the street – and Alberta's Premier is having sober second thoughts about the plight of transients after his little hiccup in an Edmonton shelter last December.

And now that he's taken a vow of temperance, Klein's no longer the notorious patron of liquor store shopping, although it's said he can smell red wine breathing at a dozen paces.

But the point is that Flaherty, in a promise echoed by leadership rival Tony Clement, will unleash the Alberta model of liquor retailing on Ontario if elected premier next month, privatizing the world's largest single liquor purchasing agent, that Big Brother of Booze, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

My only question: What took you so long?

Picture it: A Saturday night. The bash is bigger and better than planned. But the cooler that was stuffed with brewskis only a few hours earlier is empty except for ice, water and a can of Coke crying out for help from the empty bottle of Bacardi.

In Alberta, relief is a strip mall away where you'll undoubtedly find a McBooze outlet open for business until 2 a.m., 364 days a year. (If it's Christmas Day, sorry, the law says you're out of luck.)

But in Ontario after 9 p.m., unless you're fortunate enough to live near one of the few "late" city outlets that don't shutter until 10 p.m., the search will either end at a locked door or a dash to Quebec.

Now in its ninth year of privatization, Alberta remains the lone outpost of entrepreneurial liquor sales in Canada. Other provinces have flirted with the concept, including Ontario early in the Mike Harris mandate, but they backed away, fearing the political hangover of wrathful bureaucrats or striking public service unions.

Alberta didn't give its liquor store workforce time to organize opposition. With nary a whisper of consultation, it announced full-scale privatization in September, 1993, terminating 1,300 jobs on a few months' notice and putting all 205 stores up for sale the next day. Once the pink slip's on the way, it's a tad late to bother with pickets.

Critics warned Albertans would swallow higher prices, reduced selection, inferior service, higher alcohol-related crime and great gobs of government revenue.

Consider the consequences, devastating as they are only to the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

- Alberta now has 907 stores while Ontario, with almost four times the population, has 600 LCBO outlets.

- Alberta boasts 18,876 products in its privately run warehouse, while Ontario's LCBO has 6,500 products.

- Per capita alcohol consumption in Alberta has declined by about 20% and the number of impaired driving charges has declined by a third.

- The markup on orders will generate a $490-million for the government of Alberta this year, which does nothing to earn it beyond shuffling a bit of paper and collecting its flat tax, while Ontario does all the work with four times the market and only pockets an $850-million dividend.

- It's hard to determine if Alberta has the lowest prices in the country, but it ranks near the bottom in most surveys.

- And those 1,300 pink-slipped liquor store workers of 1992 turned into 3,500 taxpaying private-sector employees, albeit with few earning the old $14-an-hour government rate for stocking shelves.

It may not be the image the new liver-loving Klein wants to cultivate, but the minister in charge of the industry, Calgary's Ron Stevens, calls liquor privatization "the jewel in the Premier's crown."

"To me, it's a no-brainer, yet it's strange we don't have other provinces coming to Alberta to see how we did it."

Stay tuned. I can't imagine B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell will be able to resist a scheme that replaces a huge government workforce with thousands of entrepreneurs and raises revenue simultaneously. If he hasn't the stomach to abandon that business, he's set to govern a Lotusland of perpetual deficits.

Flaherty, who at least has the guts to talk revolutionary policy while apparent front-runner Ernie Eves coasts along on his confident lead, has the right idea of a privatization litmus test: If it's in the Yellow Pages, it has no place in the government directory.

Should either Flaherty or Clement win, their first stop should be King Ralph's booze-buying emporium to seek inspiration for their privatization promise.

As true blue Conservatives, they'll find it an intoxicating experience.

Don Martin is the Calgary Herald's national affairs columnist.

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