Most of us think of crown or public corporations as being the biggies: SaskPower, SaskEnergy, SaskTel, Sask Health, Education and Water — all of which are near to our hearts. And rightfully so. These are services we rely on daily to provide for our quality of life. But our government has a multitude of crowns, agencies and boards that may have at one time served us well, but not necessarily today.
The axe first fell on a crown corporation years back, when SaskTel was declared to be a monopoly. The courts gave the province five years to open the door to competition. Remember the time when you couldn’t own your own phone? You had to rent one from SaskTel, and it was hard-wired into your home. And extension phones were extra. Today you can buy several inexpensive phones and plug them into your walls at no additional cost to your monthly fee. Long-distance calls were outrageously expensive. Now “all-you-can-talk” long-distance plans are available at reasonable costs to suit individual needs. SaskTel did not wither and die when faced with competition. In fact it became better than ever for its products and services.
In 2012 the provincial government opened the door to private-vendor liquor outlets, awarding two licences in each of Saskatoon and Regina, with each licensed outlet being connected to a large grocery retailer. Instead of the government using tax dollars, private industry would invest its money to build fancy, well-stocked outlets and sell alcohol on behalf of the government. By all accounts the general feedback seemed positive.
Recently the government announced the franchising of liquor stores to private vendors in Langenburg, Ituna, Ponteix and Kerrobert. The reaction from Saskatchewan government and General Employees Union spokesperson, Bob Bymoen, falls into the “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” category. He suggested that private vendors will be more interested in profit than enforcing the law on sale of alcohol to minors or intoxicated people.
He pointed out unionized liquor board employees have been trained to prevent this from happening. (I have numerous stories that could disabuse this statement.) Does this rigorous training come from an institute not available to private liquor vendors? How much training does it take for either a public or private vendor to ask “Can I see your identification?” No ID, no booze. Would the incentive of losing your franchise as a liquor vendor be a greater deterrent for selling to minors than a slap on the wrist for a liquor-board employee for the same infraction?
Next the issue of lost taxation was raised. Well we all saw what happened to the private wine store in Saskatoon that dared to purchase wine outside of the government realm by buying product in Alberta and re-selling the spirits here. They were shut down, and several investors suffered great financial pain.
Why would the government franchise outlets in small rural communities? Common sense would say savings on operational costs would be the number one reason. If all 12 employees affected by the closure of these public stores were full-time employees and earning anywhere from $25.34 to $30.55 an hour (and assuming a 37-and-a-half hour work week), salaries alone would range between $592,956 and $714,870 annually, plus benefits. Add to savings the elimination of the costs associated with owning/maintaining a building or leasing space and paying utilities. Weigh these savings against the 15 per cent the franchisees will earn from alcohol sales in their communities, and the whole thing makes financial sense. At the same time being a government-franchised liquor vendor may be the only thing that will keep the much-needed mom-and-pop grocery or convenience stores viable in rural Saskatchewan.
Franchising is not true privatization: the government has been clear that it will control product and the price of liquor, and franchisees will be required to follow the same provincial laws as do government-operated liquor stores. Nothing changes, other than a more economical point of sale.
I am not advocating wholesale privatization of every government-owned crown or agency. But selling booze is not an essential service to be lumped in with gas, energy, power, water, health or education. We should expect that each service being considered for any form of private-sector involvement or privatization must be carefully examined and the merits weighed, with scales tipping in favour of the general public.
Nor do I think unions are bad organizations. They have and should continue to play a valuable role in protecting the rights of workers from abusive employers. We can all empathize with the 12 people who will lose their current jobs. We also should expect there is provision in their collective agreements for transfers. But the era of union control over every facet of life in this province is over.
When all is said and done, regardless of the Chicken Little rant, the sky is not falling.