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Now there's a shocker! Upon close examination it turns out Saskatchewan, which has been loudly whinging about Alberta beer sales running "counter to the spirit and intent" of the New West Partnership, has a provincial beer sales system that … erm … operates counter to the spirit and intent of the New West Partnership.
Egregiously, as a matter of fact.
This is hardly a surprise since Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who the media constantly makes out to be the Mr. Congeniality of Confederation, has been engaging in gratuitous drive-by slagging of the policies of Alberta's NDP government ever since it was elected. He's been known to do this while attending lunch meetings in Calgary with conservative business groups at which he tries to persuade them to quit Alberta and move their operations to thrilling Saskatoon.
The political right in this province whoops and cheers whenever Wall engages in this kind of incivility, although readers will note that most of the businesses in question don't actually take him up on the offer to move their operations to the flat rectangle to Alberta's right, politically and geographically. Since Wall is in fact attacking the economic wellbeing of all Albertans, if you ask me this suggests conservatives on both sides of the border hate Alberta.
But let's just deal with the interprovincial beer question for the moment. Early this week, Don McMorris, Wall's deputy premier and minister of gambling, booze and low-cost public auto insurance, plus several other responsibilities the details of which are fogged by neocon sloganeering, complained that "Alberta's new beer pricing and grant policy are a trade issue that could hurt producers and consumers in both provinces."
"We will be closely watching for details on the grant program to determine if it is compliant with the Agreement on Internal Trade and the New West Partnership Trade Agreement," McMorris huffed to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix while claiming that "Alberta's grant program would run counter to the spirit and intent of the New West Partnership, distorting the market by favouring Alberta producers at the expense of Saskatchewan producers."
"If they proceed with this measure, we will have to explore all our options, including potentially re-examining the mark-ups on Alberta beer and other liquor products sold in Saskatchewan," he threatened.
"We should all be looking for ways to reduce interprovincial trade barriers, not raising them, so we hope the Alberta government will reconsider this ill-conceived policy," McMorris concluded self-righteously.
Things really got buzzing here in Alberta when our local right-wingers reflexively chorused their support for Saskatchewan's position and reporters raised the matter at Alberta Premier Notley's regular media availability session on Tuesday.
That's when she used the drive-by analogy -- which I just plagiarized above in tribute to the right's approach to creative writing. She added that if Wall and company have a problem, maybe they should pick up the phone and make a call about it. If they can find the time between luncheon speeches insulting her, that is.
"I would suggest that if he would actually like to see a solution, that's a better approach," the normally genuinely congenial Notley snapped, to virtually everyone's astonishment. "But in the meantime, I will not be lectured about any efforts that our government might take in the future in order to support our small brewers, our economic diversification, our workers and our industries."
Notley's level of support for Alberta's small businesses provides a contrast with the position staked out by conservative politicians like Calgary MP Jason Kenney, who is campaigning to lead Alberta's conservatives to neoliberal nirvana while collecting a paycheque from taxpayers for failing to represent his Calgary federal constituents. Kenney promptly Tweeted Saskatchewan's side against the interests of Alberta brewers.
So what has Alberta actually done, you ask?
Well, as of Aug. 5, the provincially owned liquor wholesaler will put in place a new markup for beer sales of $1.25 per litre, regardless of where the beer is made. Meanwhile, there will be grants available to assist small Alberta brewers of craft beer.
Saskatchewan doesn't like this because it will end what amounts to a subsidy of Saskatchewan brewers, one in particular, by Alberta taxpayers. Saskatchewan beer makers need Alberta’s help because their province’s beer distribution agency charges them more to sell their product at home than we do here.
I get this information, in case you're wondering, from Jason Foster, Athabasca University professor and CBC beer columnist. Dr. Foster, Alberta's best-known beer expert, wrote a very helpful blog post that explains all this stuff.
Despite lowering their markup on beer from small breweries last fall to rate still higher than Alberta's new markup, Saskatchewan does not have an open border to beer from elsewhere in Canada as Alberta does. Au contraire, the Saskatchewanian liquor agency run by McMorris won't allow beer from outside the province without its OK, which is not easy to get.
Saskatchewan "has full discretion on whether to accept or reject" an application to import beer, Foster explains. "They are not required to inform the applicant of the reasons for their decision. Alberta breweries have over the years applied to enter the Saskatchewan market but have had their applications denied. No reason provided." (Emphasis added.) In other words, there's no accountability or transparency, and plenty of trade restrictions.
"That Alberta breweries have been denied entry speaks quite loudly to the system's ability to create border controls over beer," Foster observes. "Why deny an Alberta brewery access to your market unless you think they are a threat to a Saskatchewan brewery?"
In other words, on this point alone, Saskatchewan is clearly operating counter to the spirit and intent of the New West Partnership, as well as distorting the market by favouring Saskatchewan producers at the expense of Alberta producers, to use a phrase with a familiar ring to it.
Foster notes that Alberta's considerably lower markup on beer results in a particular benefit to Saskatchewan's Great Western Brewery, which sells about 60 per cent the insipid beers it brews at its Saskatoon brewery here in Alberta. "It is clear that Saskatchewan breweries can sell their beer at a lower mark-up in Alberta than they can in their home province," says Foster.
Oh, and by the way, every time you buy one of those protected, heavily marked up Saskatchewan beers in Wall's free-market paradise, you have to pay a five-per-cent sales tax to Wall's government.
So one could argue that if McMorris is really serious about giving Saskatchewan consumers a break, like he claims, his conservative Saskatchewan Party government could lower the markup it charges on out-of-province beer to Alberta's rate and not charge the provincial sales tax.
What's Alberta to do?
Gee, maybe we could threaten to file a complaint under the Agreement on Internal Trade and the New West Partnership Trade Agreement to force Saskatchewan to open its borders to some of the great brews produced here in Alberta, and treat them fairly when they get there.
And what about our auto insurance companies? Saskatchewan won't even allow them to do business in that province!
Oh, wait! This is supposed to be a progressive blog, isn't it? Still, I wonder if the unpleasant Wall would complain publicly if "socialist" Alberta adopted a government auto insurance plan like the ones voters refuse to part with in conservative-run Saskatchewan and British Columbia? You can count on it his pals here in Alberta would scream bloody murder if the NDP did.
Perhaps Premier Notley should take Wall aside in Whitehorse today and give him a piece of her mind on behalf of all us Albertans? She could advise him that we should all be looking for ways to reduce interprovincial trade barriers, not raise them, and that we hope the Saskatchewan government will reconsider its ill-conceived restrictions on interprovincial trade in beer. And she can be as self-righteous as she wishes.
To put that another way, she could tell him to … oh never mind.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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