Liqour selections

Colby Cosh: Saskatchewan is following Alberta on the path to liquor privatization — almost three decades later

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Normally, a Speech from the Throne in the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly does not attract much attention. Wednesday made national headlines because a government MP had invited his ‘voter and longtime friend’ Colin Thatcher, the former Saskatchewan cabinet minister convicted in 1984 of the shooting murder of his ex-wife, to attend the speech. The MLA in question, Lyle Stewart, released a written statement on Thursday admitting that “in retrospect, it was an error in judgment because (Thatcher’s) presence was a distraction” from the presentation of the government’s programme.

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This ‘in retrospect’, implying that a particular insight was required to imagine prospectively that there would be controversy over Thatcher’s presence, appeals to my taste for morbid humor and/or quips; it might be the funniest thing I’ve heard all week. But it meant that the newsworthy content of the Speech from the Throne, if any, was almost certain to be ignored outside of Saskatchewan.

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It’s a bit unfortunate, because the speech contained the fascinating announcement that the Saskatchewan government finally intends to get out of liquor store management altogether, selling the 34 retail outlets that he still possesses in the year of grace 2022.

Saskatchewan will thus become the first province to fully privatize alcohol retailing since Alberta did so in 1993. Saskatchewan, like Alberta, will retain control over the warehousing and distribution of imports (although these functions are performed in Alberta by a monopoly private contractor); it is not yet clear whether product selection will be retailer driven, as is the case in Alberta.

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Presumably it will: the virtually limitless selection of alcohol available in the Alberta system is the product of a free and responsive retail market instead of a government list of approved products and the occasional shortages that come with it. . This is perhaps the most easily demonstrable objective benefit Albertans get from such a market, although letting capitalism decide where stores can exist is also quite impressive to consumers, especially those in outside the larger cities.

Alberta’s off-the-shelf liquor retail “system” enjoys immense popularity in the province—perhaps almost to the point that it is seen as a symbol of Albertan exceptionalism. Perhaps the belated conversion of an Alberta neighbor will even be mourned a little in Alberta.

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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe reportedly said liquor retail was not a “core business of government”. This obviously correct assertion is essentially what the Alberta government decided a generation ago. Other provinces have since allowed private retail in one form or another, but so far all have retained government-owned stores.

Alberta elected an NDP government in 2015, but there was never any thought or discussion about renationalizing liquor sales. Indeed, when cannabis was legalized across Canada, the Alberta NDP chose an all-private retail model because that was what Albertans expected.

It is therefore curious, ideologically, that the Saskatchewan NDP opposes privatization on the grounds that government stores support “good-paying” jobs. The Saskatchewan government could nationalize the shoe trade, ban and regulate the private importation of shoes, limit colors and styles, and pay provincial employees $50 an hour to sell shoes at Saskatchewan Shoe Outlets. Would it be defended as job creation, as progress towards a more humane and well-functioning economy?

Not since about 1980 that would not be the case – not even for most contemporary self-proclaimed socialists. It’s only the existence of a lingering nonsensical status quo from another century that allows this argument to be taken half-seriously – which shows just how conservative Canada is in some ways.

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