Monday, February 13, 2012

Politics Make Strange Bedfellows

Does anyone out there know what the BC Liberal Party and a chain of alcohol retailers in Ontario called The Beer Store have in common?

Tens-of-thousands of dollars in donations, that's what.

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link that is basically a search engine that allows you to see who has contributed what to whom, since 2005, in regards to political donations in BC and it seems that The Beer Store, a chain of retail stores that sells beer found in exclusively in Ontario, loves the BC Liberals, something that made me very curious.

Why the Hell would a chain of Ontario-based, retail beer stores feel the need to contribute to the BC Liberals, the same Liberals who control the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch who, in turn, control how alcohol is regulated and distributed in this province, but who have zero influence out east in the Centre of the Universe?

It seems, on the surface, an odd alliance.

After about 25 seconds of intense investigative journalism of the highest quality, I broke the case and figured it all out -The Beer Store (TBS) is owned by Molson Brewery (49%), Labatt Brewery (49%) and Sleeman Brewery (2%) all of whom have a very vested interest in being in the good books of those who control all liquor distribution and who run the largest chain of liquor stores in BC, namely the BC Liquor Stores.

The Beer Store has a virtual monopoly on retail beer sales in Ontario, about 85% of the market and has been accused by the Ontario Craft Brewers Association (OCB) of not playing fair with Ontario's craft breweries. According to OCB president John Hay and chairman Gary McMullen, in an article that appeared in the Toronto Star in July 2011, TBS is making it very difficult for the smaller breweries, with smaller operating budgets and shallower pockets, to get their products listed and properly represented in TBS's 440 locations which dominate the beer retail business in Ontario.

Not surprising, since TBS are owned by the OCB's competition.

Here in BC, despite the fact that, according to the BC Liquor Distribution Branch's (LDB) latest Quarterly Market Review,  domestic beer sales by the large (over 150,000 HL of production) domestic breweries are plummeting while the smaller (under 150,000 HL production) domestic breweries' sales are increasing significantly, the BC Liquor Stores, which are government run, continue to give the lion's share of their shelf and promotional space dedicated to beer to the large, national breweries. Local craft breweries, if they are lucky enough to get their beer listed with the LDB, have to fight over the limited space left, often hidden behind the mountains of cases of industrial swill and their related promotional displays that dominate the beer sections of these stores.

Calling again on my superior investigative reporter skills, I plugged in a few other names into the search engine and found that The Canadian National Brewers, a lobby group that works on behalf of Molson Breweries, Labatt Breweries and Sleeman Breweries, have also contributed equally significant amounts of money to the local Liberals since 2005.

Labatt Breweries, Molson Breweries and Sleeman Breweries have contributed directly to the BC Liberals but the totals that are easily identified as coming from them are significantly less. It is curious to me that these big breweries are funnelling dollars to the BC Liberals through channels that at first glance do not appear to be connected to them.

The contributions to the BC NDP party by all the groups mentioned in this post were drastically less, all totaled less than $5,000, at least from what I could find.

Now I am not insinuating that these political contributions to the BC Liberals are greasing the wheels for the big breweries to maintain the status quo and keep the prime real estate in the government run liquor stores, but it certainly isn't hurting.

Maybe The Beer Store chain were just in need of tax write-offs and they really dig what our BC Liberals are all about? Who knows, but the cynic in me has me thinking that there is some other motivation for these gratuitous political contributions, namely, maintaining the system as it is.

Where there is money like that being donated, there are expectations from those who are providing the donations. That kind of cake creates influence and gives the contributors a much better chance of catching the attention of the law and policy makers. I am curious to know if these contributions would have been directed the way of the NDP if they held the reins of power in BC over the same time period. We may soon know if the political polls showing the NDP to be leading in popularity with BC voters are correct and they get elected into power.

I found all this out in about five minutes. I wonder what is going on behind the scenes and how else Canada's big national breweries are reaching out to governments across the country to gain favour and influence. Maybe I am wrong and this whole post is based on nothing but my ever-increasing paranoia related to national and multi-national corporations acting as puppet masters for politicians around the world.

In the grand scheme of things I am sure that Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, who own Labatt Breweries, American-based Molson Coors Brewing Company, who own Molson Breweries and Japan-based Sapporo, who own Sleeman Breweries are not too concerned about what transpires in our little corner of the world, but you can be sure that the Canadian national breweries are getting just a little worried about the growing market share of the craft breweries on BC.  With hundreds of millions of dollars in beer sales in BC at stake, each percentage point of the market is huge dollars in sales, the big boys will do everything they can to protect their turf.
I am curious to see just how far the national breweries will go to tilt the playing field in their favour and maintain their stronghold in the government run liquor stores.

1 comment:

  1. If you search the Elections BC Financial Reports and Political Contributions System for "LIQUOR STORES GP INC" you will find that between 2006 and 2010 they donated over $110,000 to the BC Liberals> LIQUOR STORES GP INC owns Liquor Depot and Liquor Barn. The chairman of LIQUOR STORES GP INC is Jim Dinning (of HST fame).

    A cynic might suggest that LIQUOR STORES GP INC and The Beer Store are vying for position for when the BC Liberals follow through with their plans to completely privatie the BCLB.