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Let’s Truly Liberalize Liqour Sales in Manitoba

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26Jan

“Modern liquor rules come to Manitoba,” the happy headlines said just over one year ago. Give the provincial government a tiny bit of credit for Dave Chomiak’s recent liquor rule reforms – but don’t give them any more than that. Manitoba is still medieval when it comes to liquor regulation.

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Let’s get the biggest issue out of the way: to many Manitobans, the most obvious step is to open up liquor retailing altogether and allow for an open market.

That’s a tough debate to have. Any talk about liquor competition means a hailstorm of criticism from unions, who will claim the province will lose revenue. They don’t care that more open retail rules could mean more sales at a higher price point, generating more tax revenue in the process.  Some hoteliers might even grumble, as our reformed liquor rules still give hotels a quasi-monopoly on beer retail. Remember, hotels still dominate liquor sales in Manitoba because of a Prohibition-era legal doctrine. The idea is that you’ll need a hotel room to pass out in if you plan to buy a beer tonight.

If the MLCC debate scares you, pour yourself a glass of wine and relax. Even if you think it’d be the end of the world if someone bought a case of beer in a corner store, there’s still plenty of ways to reform liquor rules to help our economy.

Yes, this is about our economy. For instance, small liquor manufacturers are one of the fastest growing sources of new factory jobs in many Canadian and American cities. As Steve Lafleur explained in the Winnipeg Free Press last year, “the majority of Americans now live within 15km of a local brewer,” thanks to public interest in higher quality beers, wines, ciders and liquors.

In Toronto, Izumi Sake is brewed, sold and distributed by an Ontario-owned craft distillery, to rave reviews. In Minnesota, you can try Norseman Vodka or even Loonshine White Whiskey, since a state law to open markets to craft distilleries has spawned as many as fourteen new distillers. Many of the local vodkas, whiskeys and gins in production are made with organic grains grown by state farmers.

On the brewing side, our cousins in Minnesota also have rules to make it easy for local craft breweries to make and sell their product wherever there’s demand. The result is a state craft brewers’ association with sixty-three brewer-members. In fact, there are more brewers and distillers of any size in Duluth and the surrounding county – population 200,000 – than there are in all of Manitoba. Minnesota’s approach means more jobs, more local markets for local farm produce, more character for visiting tourists, and more local beer consumed at the expense of competing importers.

Look at temporary permits as a target for reform, too. Even after Chomiak’s reforms, Manitobans still have to walk a maze if they want to experiment with a pop-up restaurant, a fundraiser or a new festival. Look at Raw Almond, Winnipeg’s most innovative and high-profile restaurant. To serve cocktails, Raw Almond still has to sell you tickets which “can only be purchased on the day of your reservation,” as if it’s your cousin’s social in a neighborhood community club.

Then there’s the regulations on serving and selling. Other provinces (and cities) are flexible on opening hours to serve different clienteles. We aren’t. Other provinces allow for off-site retailing by local brewers. We don’t. In other provinces and cities, broader open liquor rules make it easier to enjoy exciting outdoor events and street festivals without the ghetto of a beer tent. Not here.

While the rest of the continent zooms past us, Manitoba isn’t seeing a boom in local brewery or distillery production. We’re not seeing a boom in flexible events and entertainment. It’s safe to blame excessively conservative bureaucratic regulation – and last year’s reforms didn’t go far enough to change that.

Don’t forget, none of this is about liquor safety. If it was, provincial officials would be willing to license Uber services, license more cabs, or do both to make it easier to ‘drive safe.’ That’s not going to happen as long as governments are more interested in pleasing taxicab lobbyists than they are in protecting potential cab consumers. Again, monopolistic thinking is holding Manitoba back.

Real liquor reform can make Manitoba a more attractive place to live. It can also help to create jobs and drive up tax revenues. We won’t exaggerate. We’re probably only talking about hundreds of new manufacturing, service and retail jobs. At most, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of dollars in additional tax revenue.

Still, if we can really modernize our province in a few sectors like this one, one at a time, it’ll add up to a brighter future that can finally bring Manitoba Forward.

 

Dave Shorr
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