Alberta liquor lessons for Ontario considered

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative opposition leader, Tim Hudak, is proposing to take a page from Alberta in reforming

Derek Fildebrandt, Alberta CTF Director – Guest Columnist

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative opposition leader, Tim Hudak, is proposing to take a page from Alberta in reforming his province’s liquor regime. In short, ending the government decreed monopoly in favor of at least some degree of private competition modeled on Alberta.

This is a very good idea.

Still, there are voices in Alberta, like the Parkland Institute, that plead for a return to the post-prohibition era of government monopoly.

Prohibition came to both Alberta and Ontario in 1916 and was imposed nationally using the War Measures Act in 1918.

Alberta repealed its unenforceable prohibition laws in 1924 and Ontario did the same in 1927, but like most provinces, their governments retained the zeal of the temperance movement and severely curtailed the freedom to buy, sell and consume alcohol. The idea behind giving the government a monopoly was to continue the paternalistic, prohibition-inspired policies without driving the activity entirely underground.

This persisted in the form of the Alberta Liquor Control Board (ALCB) and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

Fast-forward 70 years to the Klein Revolution in 1993. To Premier Klein, the idea of the government running a liquor monopoly belonged in the ash heap of history. He ordered the total privatization of Alberta’s state liquor monopoly and the results have been almost universally positive.

The convenience for Albertans looking for a cold one has drastically improved. At the end of its days in 1993, the ALCB operated 208 stores. As of 2012, there are 1,313 private liquor stores in Alberta, a 613 per cent increase. Alberta’s stores are open longer and for more days of the year than Ontario’s strictly unionized stores.

This may come as a shock to Albertans, but Ontarians literally need to plan their day around going to the LCBO or to The Beer Store (often to both if they would like to purchase both a bottle of wine and a case of beer on the same day). Highly restricted hours and few locations mean that going to the liquor store is not the casual stop at the corner that it is in Alberta.

Think of the carbon emissions saved in Alberta by not having to drive all around town just to stock up your fridge before a dinner party.

The end of the government monopoly also meant the end of government guiding our tastes. In 1993, there were 2,200 different products available in Alberta government liquor stores. Today there are 18,046 products available in Alberta, an 820 per cent increase.

The newfound convenience and choice alone are enough to justify Alberta’s new path.

Government revenues haven’t suffered either. In 1993, government revenue from the sale of alcohol was $405 million, or $625 million when adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars. This compares with the $687 million the province collected last year.

To be sure, Alberta could collect more money in alcohol taxes but they could also collect less. Interestingly, while Quebec is the most taxed jurisdiction in North America, its people balk at the idea of high alcohol taxes.

They may accept government confiscating half their income but they won’t let bureaucrats tax their beer. With a massive tax differential, you could buy some premium beers in that province for half the price of neighbouring high-tax Ontario.

More importantly than price, selection and convenience is where Albertans are treated at least somewhat like adults when it comes to alcohol, especially relative to Ontarians. Alberta’s alcohol regime is far from perfect and there are many lessons that we can learn from other jurisdictions, but in the meantime, Ontario can take a lesson from us.