BALDREY: B.C.’s new liquor law strategy embraces competition

The biggest part of the BC Liberals’ seemingly never-ending overhaul of the province’s liquor laws is finally in sight and it’s unclear what kind of impact it will have on consumers.

I’m referring, of course, to the actual price you will be paying for beer, wine or spirits. Changing arcane bureaucratic rules or putting booze in grocery stores is interesting but what everyone really cares about is how much they have to fork over at the till. On April 1, the government is moving towards a wholesale pricing system for alcohol and that puts government-owned stores on equal footing with private dispensers.

The NDP claims this will lead to widespread price increases but the government insists that only 17 per cent of all products will see some kind of price hike and even then, most of the increases will be quite low. As well, most of the products designated for price hikes are high-end items that few people buy (how many of you routinely buy $40 bottles of wine?).

There are more than 33,000 liquor products listed for sale in B.C. and the price changes (most due to a fallen Canadian dollar) affect about 5,500 of them.

The move to wholesale pricing also reflects a not-so-subtle philosophical shift by the BC Liberals when it comes to the government’s involvement in selling liquor – and it’s one that will have an impact on consumers in other ways.

For example, your shopping experience at a government-owned liquor store may be about to change for the better.

This wasn’t always the case. When the BC Liberals first came to power in 2001, then-Premier Gordon Campbell toyed with the idea of selling all government liquor stores and ceding the selling of booze to the private sector entirely. A number of government stores were indeed closed but he was forced to back off the privatization scheme by members of his rural caucus and by an aggressive push-back by the B.C.

Government Employees Union, whose members staff government liquor stores.

And so for years, most government stores operated with little re-investment in their physical upkeep and with minimal interest in customer relations. But the BC Liberals have now come full circle and are letting government stores compete on an equal footing with private stores.

As a result, many government stores will soon have longer operating hours and a number will remain open on Sundays – and many of them are having refrigeration units installed. This means that two of the main advantages of private stores – Sunday openings and cold beer and wine sales – will soon disappear, something that would have been unheard of in the Campbell era.

Campbell’s would-be privatization scheme seemed to be an ideological one, based on the belief that government should get out of the retail business.

The evolving nature of the Christy Clark government’s approach to the liquor business is entirely the opposite and appears based on two principles: customer convenience and government profit. That’s why it’s becoming easier to purchase beer and wine and why the money generated by the LDB is forecast to grow significantly.

The LDB’s service plan for this year notes that its stores are going to start competing with private stores like never before, and as a result "it will be more important than ever for B.C. Liquor Stores to offer an unparalleled shopping experience."

When the BC Liberals first promised in their 2013 election platform to "modernize B.C.’s liquor laws," I suspect few people had any idea how far-reaching such an exercise would be or how there would be such a complete philosophical shift away from the Campbell-led years.

In fact, no other area of government policy – not health care, education, forestry or mining – appears to have received the kind of attention the liquor industry has gotten this past year. And we’ll know in the next few weeks whether a key aspect of that industry – the cost of its products – is going to change much.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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