NDP government has opportunity to reverse B.C. Liberal liquor "fixes" that led to sky-high prices

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      It has been a few months now since NDP Leader John Horgan was sworn in as British Columbia’s 36th premier, a tidal shift after the Liberal party’s 16-year stranglehold on power. And with the provincial government at the helm of liquor policy, a monopoly with considerable power and sway, you can bet many of us in the wine, beer, and spirits industry have been cautiously hopeful for positive changes.

      Optimism about favourable policy shifts accompanying leadership change is usually muted until seeds of progress are seen to be planted. There has been reason for hope, though, in the form of our new attorney general, Vancouver–Point Grey MLA David Eby.

      In the home stretch of B.C. Liberal rule, Eby was the Opposition’s liquor-policy critic, and he often swung for the fences in the theatrical setting of B.C.’s legislature sessions. After the Liberals’ liquor review and its purported policies and goals—Liquor prices won’t increase! A level playing field for all retailers!—were implemented, it was whip-smart Eby and his penchant for research and showmanship that made his taking-to-task of the ruling party well received by industry players.

      Unfortunately, although many talking points were raised (and if these sessions had been actual debate competitions, he would have slayed), his valid points proving unkept promises and (let’s face it) shitty policy mostly fell on deaf ears when it came to the Liberals’ agenda and actions.

      As attorney general, the guy has a lot on his plate. One only has to look at Premier Horgan’s July 18 mandate letter (available online) sent to him to see that his plate has to make room for reforming campaign-finance law, reestablishing the Human Rights Commission, improving legal aid to those in need, and conducting a comprehensive operating review of ICBC. Although it’s mildly concerning that there’s no mention of liquor policy in the letter, Eby holds that file as well and is responsible for policy and revenue.

      While the liquor file may not seem as important or as much of a priority as, oh, a human-rights commission, let’s keep in mind that it’s a billion-dollar economic engine paying more than a few provincial bills and is the apparatus that supports B.C. restaurants, bars, hotels, and both government and private retail stores, along with employees from all sectors.

      Of course, none of us with a vested interest have expected change overnight, and this one came in at an inauspicious time, with many fires, figurative and literal, to put out throughout B.C. There is a hierarchy of priorities for any new government. It’s also expected to give Eby a little time to get comfortable in his new role, something that we can’t expect to be immediate. Hey, our Attorney General is 6-foot-7; I can’t imagine it’s easy to be immediately comfortable anywhere.  

      I have hope for progress and positive change not only because of Eby’s public actions during the past few years but also because of personal experience. I and others in the industry contacted him with concerns and questions during his time in Opposition, and he always made time for emails and social-media messages. I even had the chance to knock back a glass of wine or two with him while he patiently let me and others vent. He and his young family live in this city and have shared many of the frustrations that Vancouverites harbour, from the high cost of living to DTES social ills to liquor policy that often suffocates business and culture.

      In the meantime, British Columbians continue to pay some of the highest prices on the planet for wine, beer, and spirits. As an example, my most recent purchase from B.C. Liquor Stores was Alvear medium-dry sherry, an autumn-friendly amontillado laden with toffee-covered hazelnuts. In British Columbia, we’re paying $21.26 once taxes are added in. In Ontario’s LCBO, the same bottle comes in at $13, an $8.26 difference.

      Restaurants are still not offered a discount or wholesale price on alcohol, making it all the more difficult to run their businesses in this city of skyrocketing real-estate prices.

      Another challenge is the “SPEC” system, where warehoused products not on liquor-store shelves must be ordered by the case and take two or more weeks to arrive, even though they are warehoused in Richmond. This makes it very difficult to smoothly run any interesting restaurant wine program, never mind a streamlined business.

      Restaurants also cannot purchase product from private neighbourhood stores like Marquis Wine Cellars and Liberty Wine Merchants. Permission to do so not only would support local business but wouldn’t affect provincial revenue one bit, as these stores must purchase their product from the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch just as B.C. Liquor Stores do.

      These last couple of matters have easy fixes that make sense. Some other changes will be more difficult.

      Eby is well acquainted with these issues and many, many others in this field. He’s also able to address them.

      And Christmas is right around the corner.

      Just sayin’.