Thursday, June 20, 2013

BC Liquor Law Reform Post Election: Where Do We Go From Here?

The election hangover has long past and British Columbians who were excited about the possibility of the NDP taking charge and following through on their promise to reform and modernize 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 the same old, same old in regards to BC liquor policies, liquor law enforcement and support of the craft beer industry.

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 press release in Feb of this year (read press release here). The Liberal approach has been haphazard at best and reactionary, described by the NDP as a "piecemeal approach to liquor policy," and not a part of a systematic, comprehensive plan.

The NDP had made it loud and clear before and during the election that they were committed to a full-on review of current BC liquor laws, which 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 our archaic. They have, to this point, also been very open to listening to consumers and I have had several meetings with several NDP MLAs where we discussed issues that negatively impact craft beer consumers.

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 law game and how this may impact the craft beer scene, at least in the short term.

Starting Line-up:

Former Vancouver City Councilor, Suzanne Anton, has been appointed the new Attorney General and Justice Minister and the alcohol portfolio now falls under her ministry's umbrella. Anton may bring a new perspective and energy to old issues as she is new to provincial politics. 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 email to CAMRA Vancouver 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 where she is actually 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 as having been the minister in charge of multiculturalism who 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 the 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 regards to liquor law review and reform. Liberals historically have not put much stock into what consumers want and have instead 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 about 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 all the various sectors of industry that often have conflicting wants and needs in regards to liquor law changes. 

Great news for the craft beer scene in the BC is that NDP MLA Shane Simpson is back in the game and has been tasked with being the official critic in regards to the Liberal liquor modernization strategy. Simpson has been a great supporter of the BC craft beer industry and consumers in the past and 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 and 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 and 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 being tasked with overseeing the Liberal liquor policies, this means 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 and it always seems to fall back in his lap when any whiff of controversy arises. Coleman has not particularly been the champion of the craft beer consumer and, at least from my perspective, is very wine-centric and does not take the craft beer movement very seriously. 

Coleman 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 while allowing his BC Liquor Distribution Branch to send 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 the locals who are already struggling to get shelf space in BC Liquor Store shelves. During the BYOCB campaign I sent Coleman an email trying to advocate for the inclusion of beer in the corkage program. In his response, he basically summed up his argument against corkage for beer and attitude towards the BC craft beer scene  writing, "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 who has been the General Manager for the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB). Ayers and is seen by many as the person who has been most resistant to liquor law changes and who has the power to right liquor policy as she sees fit in some cases. From a distance, the LCLB appears to be like a fiefdom, with little to no accountability to the consumers and voters of the province. She has used the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot as a scare tactic to continue justifying how all BC alcohol consumers should treated like children who have 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. The LCLB, under her direction, 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. You have to look no further than how Ayers has treated the Great Canadian Beer Festival (read here) while ignoring consumers' rights and consumer issues (here). There are many who were literally celebrating when Ayers announced her retirement and hopefully her replacement will be more open to change and considering other points of view other than her own.

Wildcard game-changer:

Christy Clark could play a major role in how our liquor reform is shaped if she is successful in her bid to be elected in the Westside-Kelowna riding in the by-election that has been called for July 10th. 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 and will not have 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 liquor laws and it appears the Liberals are going to consult with the various sectors of the alcohol industry. Let us hope they include consulting with consumers and CAMRA BC, who have already reached out to the Liberals politely demanding 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 of the alcohol industry here in BC, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

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