Breakenridge: Minister of red tape reduction tied up in knots over cheap booze

If the minister’s not going to mandate minimum prices at the retail level, then what exactly was the point of all of this, other than to intimidate Alberta businesses who were doing nothing wrong?

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There was no ideal background for the bizarre and pointless foray into Alberta’s liquor market by the minister of Service Alberta, but to do so at an event billed as “getting out of the way of business” was especially tone-deaf.

The event was intended to highlight the province’s Red Tape Reduction Statutes Act but, instead, the headlines were all about Dale Nally (who, ironically, also serves as minister of red tape reduction) and his righteous crusade against uncouth jugs of hooch.

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What drew the minister’s ire was four-litre plastic containers of vodka being sold at an Edmonton liquor retailer for the bargain price of $49.95, as was first spotted and shared by a Postmedia reporter. The vodka itself was produced by St. Albert-based T-Rex Distillery, although both the distillery and the retailer have since pulled the product in response to the minister’s eruption. It’s unclear why this should be seen as a satisfactory outcome.

No rules or regulations were violated at any point in this process by either the distillery or the retailer. Nally’s angst was a cocktail of the low price, the large quantity and the fact that the vodka was packaged in an ugly plastic jug.

“I have a problem with all of it,” he declared, adding, “I don’t think a four-litre plastic jug of vodka adds to the quality of the distillery industry that we have in this province.”

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The minister’s retort to the obvious point about all rules being followed was to observe that “what is not in compliance with this is the spirit of Albertans, which is what we believe is responsible pricing.”

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Later in the week, however, the minister said “we’re not looking to get in between the retailer and the consumer in any way. We won’t be setting floor pricing.” It’s hard to tell whether we should take this as a clarification or a reversal.

So if the minister’s not going to mandate minimum prices at the retail level, then what exactly was the point of all of this, other than to intimidate Alberta businesses who were doing nothing wrong? Although he did note that “I can’t forecast what will happen down the road,” leaving the door open for quantity limits, jug bans or who knows what else.

Dale Nally
Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction Minister Dale Nally. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia, file

It’s hard to imagine that this didn’t create broader concern and confusion in the industry as to what sort of arbitrary assessment the government might use to deem another product or promotion unacceptable. Follow the rules, yes, but be prepared for the unpredictable whims of capricious government ministers that might still scuttle your plans. But other than that, we’re getting out of the way of business.

It’s also rather galling for a government that talks so frequently about an “affordability crisis” to now simultaneously argue that we have a crisis of too much affordability in certain sectors of the economy.

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In a statement, T-Rex Distillery points out that their product was reviewed and approved by the AGLC, as was the pricing. They also noted that at no point did the minister or anyone from government contact them. If a concern exists, why not reach out to businesses involved, rather than crucify them in public?

What’s ironic, though, is T-Rex’s explanation for what opened the door for these lower-priced spirits: the AGLC’s removal of the “80/20” rule. Previously, distilleries had to produce 80 per cent of their product in-house, and they could import the rest. Now, any distillery can import any amount, without distilling anything themselves.

This is arguably a more consumer-friendly approach, but it’s the very company that’s been publicly tarred as irresponsible by the Alberta government that’s calling for a return to the previous policy.

Reducing red tape and getting out of the way of business are laudable objectives for government. Let this stand as a lesson in how to do the opposite.

“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on QR Calgary (770AM / 107.3FM)

[email protected]

X: @RobBreakenridge

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