Talk about the perfect metaphor for Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government in the year of Our Lord 2023: A couple of guys day drinking in a 7-Eleven and yakking about it.
Well, bois, it just doesn’t get any better than this!
I speak of course of the social media video made by Red Tape Reduction Minister Dale Nally and his pal Larry about how the UCP is making Alberta a better place by cutting “red tape,” which as we all understand is a venerable pejorative term used by people who don’t like the rules to describe regulations.
The reference, by the way, to “bois” – usually pronounced boys – is a reference to the beer these two worthy gentlemen are quaffing. Is this a dogwhistle to the UCP base? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll know if they show up in another video wearing Hawaiian shirts and camo vests. Most likely it was just the only beer from an Alberta brewery on hand in the store.
Nally – who is the MLA for Morinville-St. Albert and also the Minister of Service Alberta, by tradition the least significant portfolio in an Alberta cabinet – was touting the government’s Jason-Kenney-era promise to “cut red tape,” a phrase that needs to be enclosed in scare quotes not just because many regulations benefit society but also because conservative efforts to reduce it so often result in the creation of even more regulation.
For example, to allow customers to swill booze on the premises, 7-Eleven will require a restaurant licence and will also have to hire staff who have received the Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis Commission’s liquor sales staff training course, which sounds like two additional pieces of red tape to me.
Premier Danielle Smith’s government has been pushing its not-very-significant red-tape initiative hard for the past couple of days, presumably to distract from the embarrassment caused by Justice Minister Tyler Shandro’s Alberta Law Society hearing and the privacy breach he publicly committed while it was taking place.
The idea of selling beer and wine in convenience stores has worked well enough for many years in Quebec and Newfoundland, which like Alberta remain part of Canada. It could work well here, too, if it is done right.
“It is because of our government’s red tape reduction that 7-Eleven locations with cafes, like this one here, are licensed to sell and serve alcohol,” enthused Nally, just in case you were thinking of letting the kids run down to the corner 7-Eleven by themselves, in his one-minute social media video.
But this deal seems to have been worked out only with the Dallas, Texas-based, Japanese-owned, multinational convenience store chain.
Moreover, the idea appears to have started out not as red tape reduction, but as part of COVID-19 mitigation measures to AGLC regulations for consumption of alcohol in parks and restaurant off-sales of beer and wine during the pandemic.
As CBC beer columnist and Athabasca University professor Jason Foster pointed out in his blog last week, “this decision stretches the definition of an eating establishment to the point of absurdity. Sure, 7-Eleven serves food. Hot dogs, fried chicken, pizza and other hot greasy things are its anchor. … But does that make it a restaurant? I am skeptical.”
More importantly, Foster continued, “this push by 7-Eleven is more about finding a back door way to allow them to sell beer and wine like a liquor store. … This is about expanding retail sales to convenience stores.”
“This change has the potential to upend Alberta’s liquor retail system,” he wrote. “It is being done without any consultative process with either Albertans or other players in the industry or without any open recognition of its potential impact on the liquor retail industry.
“Worse, it is being implemented in a way that clearly advantages one of the largest convenience store chains on the planet,” Foster added, noting that “a policy that clearly provides an unfair advantage to one for-profit player at the expense of others is bad policy.”
Whether any of this benefits consumers can be debated. It is certainly unlikely to lower prices or address public health and safety concerns.
It may drive some of Alberta’s many marginal liquor stores out of business, a change that certainly won’t stimulate economic growth, diversification and job creation, as Nally asserts it will in his video.
Not all regulation eliminations in the UCP’s red tape cutting exercise are bad. For example, allowing government offices to accept digital signatures makes sense and will ease the burden on public employees and businesses alike.
But most examples touted by the UCP are dangerous.
For example allowing cryptocurrency scammers to operate in a rules-free “regulatory sandbox,” making it easier for the parks ministry to cave in to off-road vehicle users by “moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach,” and making sure only pro-industry captured agencies make regulations affecting resource development will all have harmful impacts on Alberta and Albertans.