The Politics of Wine: More Heat than Light (So Far)

August 20, 2013 Comments Off
The Politics of Wine: More Heat than Light (So Far)
Two recent political developments have caused BC wine enthusiasts – and winemakers – to get excited about the prospects for the industry.  On the heels of the BC Liberal re-election, the first took place in the heart of the Okanagan, when MLA and winery proprietor Ben Stewart stepped aside for Premier Christy Clark to contest and win a seat in the Legislature, which she duly did. The second took place mere weeks later, at the so-called Council of the Federation, the annual summer get-together of provincial Premiers, where BC Premier Clark carted along to Niagara-on-the-Lake a case of fine BC wine to share with her fellow Premiers (fortunately no longer a federal Criminal Code offence).  Let’s take a closer look at each event, and what they signify – if anything.

The recent backdrop of course is that the BC election was followed by the introduction of a new Cabinet, with new mandates for ministers.  High hopes (and perhaps high eyebrows) greeted the mandate publicly announced by the Premier for newly-appointed Attorney-General Suzanne Anton:  to review all aspects of the province’s involvement in liquor, and to modernise BC’s “antiquated liquor laws.”  A-G Anton’s point person in this exercise is John Yap, Parliamentary Secretary for Liquor Policy Reform.  As announced on August 7, 2013 (here), Yap is undertaking a multi-stage consultations process beginning this month.  The stated goal of the consultation is to “find practical, responsible solutions that improve consumer convenience and grow B.C.’s economy, all while ensuring public safety.”

Major industry stakeholders, retailers and liquor licensees (over 10,000) are to be solicited for written feedback, followed by a broader public consultation. Seasoned observers will be forgiven for the raised eyebrows about the likelihood of success or substantial change arising from this exercise, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the outcomes. (I’ll save those for a later post, as the process unfolds – and in case that optimism evaporates like the angels’ share).

Against this backdrop, Premier Clark won the by-election in Westside-Kelowna in early July 2013, and for the first time since Bill Bennett, the Premier of the province represents an Okanagan riding – one where the wine business is certainly more ascendant than it was 25 years ago.  How significant is this really for the wine industry?  Her win (and even Stewart’s gracious move to the sidelines) was discussed with higher hopes – and expectations – than are probably realistic.  Given Stewart’s deep background in the industry, he was arguably better positioned than the Premier will be to effect real change at the political and legislative level. Either way, as an MLA she will be representing ALL of the constituents – not just wine-related – of the riding during her time in office.

While the Premier has the power to both informally and formally raise the profile of the industry, she can be expected (one hopes) to be concerned with a broader array of pressing policy and governance issues for the whole province as she works to deliver on the government’s mandate for the next four years. Dare we say, she may be distracted – by other priorities – for long periods of time.  She can certainly use her office to showcase BC wines, but lacking experiential knowledge of the industry she may be less engaged in advocating for the core interests of the BC wine industry than is hoped by proponents of the industry.  And these interests are quite likely to run counter to those held by other participants in the wine and liquor business, as we saw with the attempted privatisation of the LDB’s distribution function.  It remains to be seen how significant it will really be for the BC wine industry that the Premier now hails from the province’s premier wine region.

So just what are the core interests of the BC industry?  And in what ways can the Premier informally advocate for the industry?

Happily, these coincide in one issue area: interprovincial free trade in Canadian wine. While it certainly cannot be said that the entire industry has common interests or speaks with one voice, a recurring priority I heard voiced on a recent visit to the Okanagan was “finishing the job” breaking down the interprovincial trade barriers that the passage of federal Bill C-311 began just over a year ago. Unhappily, the completion of this important work is not in the hands of the feds, nor of one sole provincial leader.

Which brings us to event #2: the grandly named Council of the Federation. Held this year at the end of July near the heart of Ontario’s wine industry, the meeting set up a classic poetic moment for BC’s Premier to present host Premier Kathleen Wynne with some fine BC wine, making the not-so-subtle point that reciprocity is absent from the implementation of the federal enabling legislation.  BC wineries are permitted by BC policy and regulation to fill orders in limited quantities and ship to private customers anywhere in the country, and BC wine lovers in turn are allowed to purchase and have shipped Canadian wines from elsewhere in the country, direct to their doors, bypassing the BC Liquor Distribution Branch.

For the system to work fully, other provinces need to open their producer and consumer markets as well. (Some have done so: see Mark Hicken’s updated scorecard on his Wine Law site here.)  This has certainly not happened in Ontario, which the political and agency levels (via the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) claim that they are fostering the domestic Ontario wine industry.  On receipt of her BC wine, Premier Wynne made vague statements about working together to grow the overall Canadian industry, but it was clear that there would be no breakthrough at this year’s summer retreat.

On the plus side, the meeting, and the wine gift from Premier Clark to her fellow Premiers garnered national mainstream media attention.  It also set up the entertaining paradox that the Wine Council of Ontario went on record directly contradicting Premier Wynne and the LCBO’s stated reasons for keeping Ontario’s doors closed to direct-to-consumer delivery:  “ ‘It’s actually called modern wine retailing. That’s what they do all around the world,’ said Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario” (full Globe and Mail article here).

We may as well call it like it is:  the LCBO’s mandate is to deliver as much revenue to its government as possible, and so there are both political and bureaucratic barriers to break down.  To the BC government’s credit (once it eventually got the policy right last summer), it has taken the lead and set the standard for the country in opening its borders.  BC wine lovers win by being able to order direct from such wine producing provinces as Ontario and Nova Scotia.  BC wineries, for the time being, lose, by not being able to ship their wines directly to consumers in large and lucrative markets like Ontario. How much was gained by the exercise?  Not much tangible, although the BC Premier deserves credit for her informal efforts on behalf of BC’s wine industry.

So far then, in the recent politics of wine in this province and country, more heat than light.

- Karen Graham is a regular contributor to winemonkey.ca. See CBC TV report “Wine trade within Canada still being blocked