B.C. Liquor: Turning a branch into a board

Is promised restructuring of LDB coming?

Lots of changes over the last week-and-a-half in British Columbia’s taxpayer-owned enterprises, where “interim” is the operative word.

ICBC chair Paul Taylor suddenly quit the vehicle insurer and regulator on Jan. 23 and was replaced by BC Liberal-friendly adman Jatinder Rai, who will wear the interim label for now. B.C. Pavilion Corporation’s interim-since-summer-2012 CEO Dana Hayden’s previously announced resignation is effective at the end of January. The veteran senior bureaucrat said she is leaving the money-losing Vancouver Convention Centre and B.C. Place Stadium operator for a job in the private sector, but wouldn’t say where. Replacing her, on an interim basis, is PavCo COO Ken Cretney.

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Hayden was once the interim CEO of B.C. Lottery Corporation, tasked with cleaning it up after the Ombudsperson’s scathing 2007 investigation. Her successor, Michael Graydon, quit immediately on Jan. 29, hours after BCLC’s second annual New Horizons in Responsible Gambling convention wrapped-up. Graydon was not on-stage to thank attendees for coming to the 2014 event and encourage them to return in 2015. Jim Lightbody, second-in-command at BCLC, was announced Jan. 30 as the interim CEO.

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Could other changes be coming to B.C.’s public-owned legal gambling corporation? How about its East Vancouver neighbour, the Liquor Distribution Branch?

Last year, the government signalled changes to the structure of LDB, the biggest B.C.-owned retail chain. In other provinces, such as Alberta and Ontario, gambling and booze are in the same company, under a board of directors. Will B.C. go that far? Or just appoint a variety of industry experts and BC Liberal Party friends to oversee LDB.

Attorney-General Suzanne Anton is releasing the latest round of recommendations from the fall liquor policy review mid-morning on Jan. 31. Anton is the minister of liquor retail and regulation. Finance Minister Mike de Jong oversees gambling retail and regulation, but is not scheduled to be at the news conference.

The report by Parliamentary Secretary John Yap was finished more than two months ago, but the BC Liberals have opted to strategically release recommendations by the bottle instead of by the cask.

It’s a clever communications ploy, to distract from other, bigger things. This week, Premier Christy Clark seemed rather confused about whether she would follow through on a campaign promise to give taxpayers a chance to vote on major transit capital funding.

The government was, for lack of a better word, spanked by a B.C. Supreme Court judge for the second time in a legal battle with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation over collective bargaining rights. So the government wants to end the   first month of 2014 on a high note, as many British Columbians prepare to join the 12th Man bandwagon and raise a wobbly pop for the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. (Although the Denver Broncos have unique historic ties to the province.)

During a Budget Estimates hearing on July 23, 2013, NDP liquor critic Shane Simpson quizzed Anton specifically about LDB governance. She suggested Simpson wait six months for an answer. Here we are and six months have passed.

Shane Simpson: I want to ask about the minister’s mandate letter. It’s point 14, I believe, in the mandate letter, which says that the minister will “consider and present options to convert the LDB into either a Crown agency or Crown corporation with its own board of directors.”

Could the minister tell us what the thinking of government is about why that model, that structure, might make sense for this particular entity of government.

Hon. Suzanne Anton: I have been asked to look at the organizational structure. As the member observes, it’s in my mandate letter. I would note that every jurisdiction in Canada except British Columbia — including the Territories — has some form of Crown corporation for distribution. So it does seem natural that we should look at it. I think it’s a good idea to do that. The actual think- ing has not gone…. As to why, it’s something that we’re looking at. I think as we go down this road, we will have more analysis as to why and what the best format of the distribution will be.

Simpson: I have had the opportunity certainly to look at most of the jurisdictions across the country. There are a variety of ways that this is approached. Crown corporations are some, agencies are others, and other people do it in different ways. I don’t see that in itself as being a particular issue. But as the minister will know with these things, the devil is always in the details when you do this kind of thing. So we’re going to talk a little bit about that.

Could the minister tell us, then, what kinds of reforms are even contemplated here? What happens today with the LDB as it is currently structured that would be different than what would happen if it was structured as a Crown or an agency with its own independent board?

What is different about what goes on today versus that, and what could that new structure do or provide that isn’t available under the current structure?

Anton: The mandate letter itself, of course, requests that I look at the option of transitioning the Liquor Distribution Branch to a Crown agency or Crown corporation. It’s premature to even discuss the analysis of that. That’s work that is underway. It’s just starting to get underway in the ministry.

If the member would like to ask this question six months from now, I would probably have a much more complete answer. But it is rather preliminary at the moment.

There’s no question that other provinces have different models. It is worth looking at all of those models, deter- mining the pros and cons of them, doing some analysis and determining what the best option is for British Columbia.

Simpson: Could the minister tell us how the consultation process is going to evolve? Who’s going to be part of the conversation around it? What is the consultation going to look like for the minister and her officials as they try to capture enough information to make that assessment?

Anton: This is a decision about government structure. The discussions are at the officials level. Obviously, there are lots of inquiries as to what other provinces do and so on, but in terms of a general public consultation, there will not be one.


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