Brian Lee Crowley

Provincial liquor monopolies: you can run but you cannot hide

Canada’s liquor control boards – the provincially run bodies that control the sale of alcohol to Canadians – have proven surprisingly adept at enduring through calls for lower prices and greater consumer choice.

But as I argue in a new commentary for MLI, that doesn’t make them immortal. The fact that they have survived so long is itself a tribute to their political advantages for provincial governments, even as their economic advantages are gradually eroding under the onslaught of the consumer power revolution. In this Commentary, based on a talk I gave to the Canadian Association of Liquor Jurisdictions, I lay out the strengths and the challenges liquor monopolies must manage if they are to survive and how their world is changing thanks, among other things, to increased judicial scrutiny of trade barriers as well as the traditional objections of consumers and taxpayers.

We live in a world driven by the power of the consumer, and regulatory obstacles to consumers getting what they want are falling all around us. That has bodies such as the provincial liquor boards, with their monopolies, lack of choice and high prices, swimming against the historical tide.

 

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Don’t get hung up on AIT numbers game

In my latest column for the Economy Lab feature of the Globe and Mail, I take issue with the journalists who think the only issue that matters with internal barriers to trade is the price tag we assign to them. The fact that any attempt to quantify their cost is subject to challenge becomes the story, whereas in reality it is a disingenuous distraction much beloved by apologists for the status quo (cf Baloney Meter!). We know four things for sure about internal trade barriers: they’re real, they cost us a lot, their damaging effects compound over time, and they violate our rights as Canadians. Isn’t that damning enough?

If you want chapter and verse about the problem and the solutions, see the MLI paper I co-wrote with John Robson and Bob Knox, Citizen of One, Citizen of the Whole.

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Internal trade: Ottawa has the power and duty to act

One of the things that has always struck me about Canada is that whatever powers the provinces have must be respected without question and if they exercise them everyone rushes to say that no one should interfere with their legitimate powers. But let Ottawa have the temerity to want to act in an area of its own clear jurisdiction, everyone rushes to say that no one should act precipitously, that the Canadian Way is consultation, that the provinces might be offended by Ottawa flexing its muscles, etc., etc., etc.

I say rubbish. We really only created one new thing in 1867, and that was a national parliament and a national government with the power to create a nation out of the colonies and territories that had hitherto been spread across British North America. The Fathers of Confederation were explicit that one key objective was the creation of a single unified national economic space, the removal of barriers between provinces, to make, in George Brown’s phrase, “a citizen of one citizen of all.” To achieve this they gave Ottawa strong powers, including the Trade and Commerce power.

We have been talking for years now about eliminating those barriers, barriers Canada was created to sweep away in 1867. It should be clear by now that asking the provinces to do it is a failed strategy. Indeed the only question to ask is why in God’s name we ever thought that provinces, who are in competition with each other for investment and jobs, would ever voluntarily relinquish the barriers they created to give them an advantage in that competition. It is time to let Ottawa be Ottawa, as the founders of Canada intended. Read all about it in my column for today’s ROB in the Globe. Then read MLI’s paper “Citizen of One, Citizen of All” for the full argument…

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Brian Lee Crowley