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Column: Demise of government liquor stores was inevitable

An opinion piece on the government's decision on the future of the government-owned liquor stores.
Minister for SLGA Lori Carr meets reporters with details of the government’s exit from the liquor store retail business.

Ever since the Saskatchewan Party became the government in 2007, the days of government-owned liquor stores seemed to be inevitable.

It was just a matter of the right time.

The government announced in the Oct. 26 throne speech that the remaining 34 government liquor stores would be shuttered, and Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) stores would be closed.

It feels similar to when the government decided to pull the plug on the Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) in 2017. When the time was right, the government would axe the service. Five and a half years ago, the government thought it was time to wind down STC.

The obvious difference is when the government pulled the plug on STC, there wasn’t a viable option in place to move in and replace the valuable service. With the exit from liquor sales, the private sector will capably fill the void.

Lori Carr, who is the minister responsible for SLGA and also Estevan’s MLA, noted that revenues for SLGA liquor stores were down 94 per cent since 2018. Profits dwindled to $3.2 million in 201-22 and were expected to plunge further to $395,000 in 2022-23.

And she thought it would cost a lot of money to make SLGA stores competitive again. Before too long, the government would lose money on the sale of alcohol – a thought that would have seemed impossible even 10 years ago.

I’ll be honest: I’ve always wondered why Saskatchewan and other governments are involved in selling liquor to begin with. It puts itself in a position in which it is competing with the private sector.

Crown corporations like SaskPower, SaskEnergy and Saskatchewan Government Insurance make sense. The government is providing an essential service to Saskatchewan people in an area where the private sector might not be able to meet needs. But the sale of alcohol can be capably carried out by the private sector, and in the end, alcohol is not an essential service.

I’m a beer geek. I love my craft beer, and I will always be a champion for Saskatchewan breweries. But I also recognize that alcohol is not essential, not like electricity, phone service, insurance and heating. Alcohol is a luxury. There are lots of people out there who don’t drink and live a full and enjoyable life.

The people who work in our liquor stores are great. This is not a knock against them. I feel bad for them and I know they took pride in their work.

The government said the stores will be closed by March 31, 2023, and 284 full-time equivalent jobs would be impacted.

If the government is going to end liquor sales, then it needs to have plans in place to have other opportunities for these employees. And that is a big challenge. You cannot just shuffle them over to some other government department.

If a private company is willing to move into the existing building, then there’s no guarantee they will take on the staff who worked at the SLGA store.

The government says it will work with the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union to negotiate a workforce adjustment plan for affected employees, but that doesn’t mean there will be positive results for all, or even most of those put out of work.

We should have seen this coming when the government shifted its publicly-owned liquor stores in small towns to the private sector. In many communities, these stores were the only place to purchase alcohol, other than a bar or a licensed restaurant. This move would have played a big role in why profits for SLGA have been sliding in the past few years.

We have also seen some large private liquor stores move into larger centres, with better selection than what would be found at an SLGA store. 

I typically do most of my shopping at private liquor stores. Their selection for what I’m looking for is better. If I preferred the macro-breweries, I might spend more time and money at an SLGA store. 

The government-owned stores have tried to expand their offerings, but they haven`t kept up when it comes to both Saskatchewan and out-of-province craft breweries.

You also didn`t see a lot of craft beer in the coolers at the government outlet.

It’s going to feel weird to not have government liquor stores in Saskatchewan, and it will be particularly tough to see good people lose their jobs.

But you had to expect it would happen eventually.