Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bullying private wine stores

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Touted as a modernization of Manitoba liquor laws, the move by the Selinger government to open MLCC outlets at urban grocery stores is the gambit of a bully to cut into a small, successful market of private wine boutiques. This move, at an opportune time in an election year, tightens the grasp of the nanny-state liquor regulation and marketing in this province.

Some provinces have seen the logic of allowing private operators to enter the booze business -- wine and beer are on the shelves in Quebec grocery stores and Alberta privatized sales of alcohol in 1993. Neither province has fallen into rack and ruin as a result. Many in Manitoba have hoped the government would find its way, finally, into the 21st century, in step with Europe's liberalized sales of beer, wine and spirits. Instead, these amendments to the Liquor Control Act are retrograde, hostile to free enterprise and insulting to an intelligent citizenry. A relative few Manitobans who shop at the five grocery stores that win the lottery as the MLCC moves in next to the bread and cheese section will benefit.

The hostility goes beyond enlarging MLCC's assets. MLCC outlets will start to market merchandise, capitalizing on the very niche of the market private wine stores have carved out -- products such as bar ware, gift boxes and magazines. Premier Greg Selinger stressed Thursday that it was time to make alcohol purchases part of healthy food and dining decisions of Manitobans, precisely the marketing pitch of the private wine market.

The move was part of a series of legislative changes that will expand the hours alcohol can be sold at socials and the Sunday hours for bars and cabarets. More liquor inspectors will prowl the downtown, and fines for disorderly conduct and supplying alcohol to minors will rise steeply.

When the real agenda is laid bare, there is no liberalization here, no move to modern social norms. It is a blatant grab of more power and revenue for the monopolistic importer, distributor and chief salesman of alcohol in Manitoba. Having lost a court challenge -- settling out of court with private operators in 2004 -- the MLCC, operating as regulator and competitor in the wine market, and the government regrouped and hammered out a strategy to chip into the sales of the upstarts.

A modern government would have loosened the chains a little and trusted a sophisticated population with the freedom to buy booze at the corner store, restricting sales licences to retailers that respect the rules. More discouraging is the fact that the Selinger government refuses still to acknowledge the inherent abuse and conflict of maintaining an agency to be sole distributor, to regulate and compete with a handful of private, innovative entrepreneurs, businesses that have fought for scraps in a suffocatingly controlled market and flourished.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2011 A14

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