Both opposition and government lawmakers are questioning the New Brunswick Liquor Corporations’ role in promoting the province’s craft alcohol industry.
On top of its roles as retailer, wholesaler and regulator, NB Liquor is also mandated to “participate in the development of the liquor industry in the province.” Following a report from the province’s auditor general early this year that said the Crown corporation was failing to properly support the industry, MLAs have begun to question whether NB Liquor should retain that responsibility.
“They wear many hats, so the question becomes which hat should they be wearing and is it appropriate for them to wear all four hats,” said Andrea Anderson-Mason, MLA for Fundy-The-Isles-Saint John West.
“It is a very precarious balance and perhaps separating them would give some more clarity and energize the industry, which is what we’re looking to do here in New Brunswick.”
In June, New Brunswick AG Paul Martin reported that NB Liquor has no plan or strategy to develop the province’s liquor industry beyond the broad purpose outlined in law and “had no targets against which to regularly monitor or evaluate performance.”
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The corporation, Martin said, has entered into special arrangements with some producers that have resulted in profit margins lower than the margins it makes on its deal with other producers. As well, NB Liquor doesn’t have the required documentation to justify its special deals, which he said leaves the corporation with little to no defence against claims of favouritism and bias.
“We found four instances where local producers were receiving a special deal in terms of payment for their product that exceeded the moneys paid to other producers in the province,” Martin later told reporters. “There’s absolutely an issue around treating people with equality in this process.”
According to NB Liquor’s president and CEO Lori Stickles, that has since changed. A three-year strategic plan has now been put in place in order to guide efforts to support the craft industry and an advisory committee bringing together representatives from the craft industry has been put together and met for the first time in June.
The special deals reference by the AG, which were available to four local producers, will also come to an end as the Crown corporation looks to “modernize” its policies on the industry.
Stickles said those deals were effectively ad hoc policies put in place in response to an industry that was less “mature.”
“The industry has grown and changed so much over the last 15 to 20 years, it’s time to modernize our policies and modernize the approach that we’re taking to what we want to see happen within the industry and how we can support that through industry,” she said.
“It’s standardizing and just bringing everything to a level playing field now that we’re more mature.”
But Liberal MLA Rene Legacy says that he’s worried by the extent of NB Liquor’s involvement in the economic development of the industry, a task he said it’s not well equipped to perform.
“What’s happened is our of other government departments they’ve kind have just given them the lead and it becomes uncomfortable for the whole industry, especially the craft industry, because what happens is you’re basically negotiating policy and regulation with your biggest client,” he said.
“It’s an uncomfortable situation without having somebody else leading that file. There’s nobody championing it for government and I don’t think NB Liquor is the right one.”
Legacy says that economic development should be left to Opportunities New Brunswick, who are better placed to offer support the industry and study the broader economic impact and health of the industry, something NB Liquor doesn’t currently do.
“There’s nobody taking care of that aspect of how it the industry performing,” he said.
Stickles doesn’t disagree that the involvement of other agencies or government departments could be beneficial for the industry, but believes NB Liquor should continue to be at the table.
“But when we talk about economic support, you know there’s roles for other economic agencies, like there is for any small business in New Brunswick to help them with things like employment, to help them with programs, marketing, business plans. So I think there’s roles that ANBL shouldn’t play because we’re not the experts,” she said.
“There’s room for us to still play a role. I think it’s just we need to be clear what role we play and how we can help support that and then what other roles other people need to play to help the industry overall.”
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