BC Liquor Law Reform Post-Election: Where Do We Go From Here?
The election hangover has long past. British Columbians who were excited about the possibility of the NDP taking charge and following through on their promise to reform our provincial liquor laws “one practical step at a time”, have come to grips with the reality that we have four more years ahead of us with the Liberals steering the political ship. Hopefully, not four more years of business as usual.
The provincial Liberals have made some positive changes to our liquor laws and policies over the past few years, but have not “overhauled” them as they claimed in a February press release. The Liberal approach has been haphazard, at best, and reactionary, described by the NDP as a “piecemeal approach to liquor policy,”not part of a systematic, comprehensive plan.
The NDP had made it loud and clear, both before and during the election, that they were committed to a full review of current BC liquor laws. This would have included a comprehensive consultation with the BC liquor industry to work out an effective strategy to modernize our liquor policies, which even the Liberals have described as archaic. They have, to this point, also been very open to listening to consumers. I have had meetings with several NDP MLAs where we discussed issues that negatively impact the craft beer-drinking public.
We will never know if the NDP would have been able to keep that election promise. But my sense is that the commitment is real, and that they are ready to continue to push the Liberals from the opposition side of the BC Legislature to start a full review.
So where do we go from here?
Let’s start with looking at those who will be playing the “modernize BC liquor laws” game and how this may impact the craft beer scene, at least in the short term.
Former Vancouver City Councillor, Suzanne Anton, has been appointed the new Attorney General and Justice Minister. The alcohol portfolio now falls under her ministry’s umbrella. New to provincial politics, Anton may bring a new perspective and energy to old issues. A government backgrounder introducing the new Liberal Cabinet states, Anton will, ”(b)egin consultations to modernize B.C.’s liquor laws“. When Anton was running as an NPA mayoral candidate during the 2011 Vancouver City Municipal Election, she stated in an e-mail to CAMRA Vancouver that she, “would work closely” with organizations like CAMRA Vancouver and “review opportunities to expand and support” the craft beer sector in Vancouver.
Let’s hope she still has this mindset on the bigger provincial stage. She is actually now in the position to be a game changer for the craft beer industry and the consumers who support it.
Anton will not be solely responsible for overseeing the massive task of reviewing and modernizing BC liquor laws. John Yap, probably best known for having stepped down as a result of the recent Liberal ethnic voter scandal, has been appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General for Liquor Policy Reform. According to a government backgrounder, Yap will “(l)ead the stakeholder consultation on modernizing B.C.’s antiquated liquor laws and recommend improvements to the minister to take to Cabinet.”
I don’t know much about Yap, nor do many I have talked to who are activists and advocates related to craft beer. So, we will have to wait and see how consultative and invested he is in liquor law review and reform. Historically, Liberals have not put much stock in what consumers want. Instead, they pandered to their political cronies or made changes to quell issues where media and public pressure was getting just a little too much.
I am not very confident that the former multicultural minister, who claims to not have known anything about the ethnic voter scandal until the NDP exposed it, will be on the ball enough to tackle the massive task of consulting with the various liquor industry sectors that often have conflicting wants and needs.
Great news for the craft beer scene in the BC is that NDP MLA, Shane Simpson, is back in the game. He has been tasked with being the Opposition critic for core review, gaming, liquor modernization, B.C. Pavilion Corporation, and legislative accountability. Simpson has been a great supporter of the BC craft beer industry and consumers. He supported campaigns, such as CAMRA Vancouver’s Fess Up to Serving Sizes (FUSS) and Bring Your Own Craft Beer (BYOCB), bringing these issues up for debate in the BC legislature. As well, Simpson played a huge roll in halting the Liberal’s controversial plan to privatize the BC Liquor Distribution Branch’s warehouse system. He has a vested interest in supporting the BC craft beer industry, as he has four craft breweries in his constituency. Simpson is stand-up kind of guy—one who, at least as far as my dealings with him, follows through on what he says he will do.
On the Bench
With Suzanne Anton and John Yap overseeing the Liberal liquor policies, Rich Coleman is no longer in the game, at least for the moment. Coleman has been the minister in charge of the alcohol portfolio, on and off, for almost 10 years. It always seems to fall back in his lap when any whiff of controversy arises.
Coleman has not been the craft beer consumer’s champion. From my perspective, he is very wine-centric and does not take the craft beer movement that seriously. He completely dismissed the FUSS and BYOCB campaigns, and has continually snubbed the BC craft beer industry, such as when he recently reported BC will appoint a special wine envoy charged with the task of finding new markets for BC wines. At the same time, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch sent a high-ranking representative to Washington DC to give a talk on how American craft breweries can break into the BC market to compete with locals, who already struggle just to get shelf space in BC Liquor Stores.
During the BYOCB campaign, I sent Coleman an e-mail trying to advocate for the inclusion of beer in the corkage program. In his response, he summed up his argument against corkage for beer and his attitude towards the BC craft beer scene as, “While we appreciate the evolving nature and uniqueness of the variety of beer, it is not in the same category as wine.”
Seeing Coleman distanced from the liquor scene is a huge positive, in my opinion.
Also out of the game is Karen Ayers, formerly the General Manager for the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB). Ayers was seen by many as the person most resistant to liquor law changes, with the power to write liquor policy as she saw fit, in some cases. From a distance, the LCLB appears to be like a fiefdom with little to no accountability to BC consumers and voters. She used the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot as a scare tactic to continue justifying how all BC alcohol consumers should be treated like children with no self-control to act appropriately.
Ayers announced her retirement just before the recent election and is to step aside at the end of this month. Under her watch, a culture of intimidation and bullying has been cultivated in the LCLB, to the point where licensees and those with a financial stake in the liquor industry do not want to publicly raise issues or voice complaints for fear of retribution. Under her direction, the LCLB has enforced laws in a very inconsistent and random manner, hiding behind the often outdated laws, when convenient, and ignoring them as insignificant when it suits them. Look no further than how Ayers treated the Great Canadian Beer Festival on the one hand, while ignoring consumers’ rights on the other.
There were many celebrating when Ayers announced her retirement. Hopefully, her replacement will be more open to change and consider points of view other than their own.
Christy Clark could play a major role in how our liquor reform is shaped if she is successful in her bid to get elected in the July 10 Westside-Kelowna bye-election. This riding is smack-dab in the middle of wine country. So you know that if Clark is elected as the area’s MLA, she will have the wine industry representatives whispering in her ear about what that particular sector of the liquor industry desires. This may prompt Clark to push for changes to happen sooner than later, but I fear that the craft beer industry will continue to play second fiddle to the wine folks, not having their voices heard as Clark tries to soothe and woo her constituents.
It will be interesting to see where this all goes. It seems both sides of the BC legislature are committed to reviewing BC’s liquor laws. It also appears that the Liberals are going to consult with the various sectors of the alcohol industry. Let us hope they include consumers and CAMRA BC, who have already politely reached out to the Liberals to be included in the process.
I do not hold out great hope that the craft beer voice will be heard as loudly as the other sectors, but I guess we will have to wait and see.
~ originally published on the VanEast Beer Blog on June 20, 2013.