Premier Brian Pallister would rob the provincial treasury of much-needed revenue by privatizing liquor sales, at a time when Manitoba needs the money to fight COVID-19, said the union that represents Liquor Mart employees.
Pallister's pro-privatization comments to a Winnipeg radio station have Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president, shaking her head.
"I don't know why, especially now of all times, when we're in the middle of a pandemic. We're in the middle of COVID, we need that money to be able to provide services," she said. "Why take that revenue away? Why would he put that at such a risk?"
Pallister told CJOB Wednesday that the government is looking at further involving the private sector in alcohol sales — meaning shifting liquor sales away from Liquor Marts into the hands of private retailers. He used the excuse of improving customer service.
"If we can give people better choice and a competitive price on a liquor product, on an alcohol product, that’s a good thing, and that’s where we need to be looking," Pallister said.
Manitoba Liquor Marts had a $284-million profit in 2019-20 alone, and Gawronsky said raising the idea of shifting funding away from the public sector in the midst of the pandemic is alarming.
Gawronsky said Pallister's reasoning is flawed, pointing to customer surveys that show a 93 per cent satisfaction rate from Liquor Mart customers as an example.
"The most common comments that are always said during these surveys is these employees go out of their way, the provide the best possible service, they go above and beyond at all times," she said.
Work is being done to provide competitive selection for Manitobans, who should be able to purchase liquor from retailers who sell other goods, Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton said.
"It was a part of our government mandate to modernize our wine, beer and liquor retailing system," Wharton said in an email to the Free Press. "We want to ensure Manitobans have the best choice and competitive pricing when it comes to liquor products. To do this, we may need to review our current model to accommodate."
Gawronsky said Pallister has made an about-face from his position before the last election. During pre-election conversations, Pallister had promised to keep Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp. public in a 2019 questionnaire from the union, she said.
"I would question why he feels he needs to once again start discussing this, he was very clear in his response to us," she said.
Manitobans have to consider what they stand to lose in public services if the revenue made by Liquor Marts is taken out of government coffers and put into the hands of private retailers, Gawronsky said.
"That’s the money for our roads, our highways, the schools, our health care, our hospitals, our COVID (response), our education system," she said. "Take $284 million out of our budget now and just see what kind of effect it would have… we’ve got the liquor stores that are generating revenue for the benefit of all Manitobans, not a few select. It’s not going into one bank account."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.