B.C. government to create liquor-reform panel

Lawyer Mark Hicken to advise attorney general on panel composition
Wine-policy lawyer Mark Hicken is the B.C. government's point man on helping create a wine, beer and spirits panel to change regulations and support the industry | submitted

B.C.’s new government is acting on a campaign promise to create a beer, wine and spirits panel with the aim of tweaking regulations and supporting the industry.

Its Ministry of Attorney General announced November 6 that it has retained longtime liquor-policy lawyer, and Vintage Law principal, Mark Hicken, to be an adviser and to help suggest names for the composition of the panel.

The panel will include manufacturers of wine, beer and spirits as well as retailers, Hicken told Business in Vancouver November 7. He would not say how soon the panel will be created because the first step is to create what he called a “work plan.”

His expectation is that the panel should be established early in 2018.

Hicken would also not say what issues the panel will likely focus on, but he said the focus will likely be the many issues that have been flashpoints for industry in the past several years.

Issues such as whether restaurant owners should be able to buy liquor at a price that is less than the retail price for the general public is likely to be one of those issues.

Indeed, Restaurants Canada, on November 7, released a report card for all Canadian provinces. Its summary on B.C. noted that "access to wholesale prices was, and continues to be, Restaurants Canada's priority recommendation." It downgraded B.C. to a C grade, down from a previous C+ grade in 2015.

Hicken will report through the Ministry of Attorney General, so it is unclear how much he will be involved in advising the Ministry of Agriculture on whether to change regulations to conform with recommendations that passed in a plebiscite that B.C.’s wine industry held between May 20 and July 1, 2016. The previous Liberal administration only passed three of the 10 recommendations that wine-industry insiders passed in that plebiscite. 

Hicken expects his work for the government to be so busy that he will have little time for other clients.

“I will [have other clients] although there will be some obvious restrictions on that when I’m doing a role like this, in terms of rules and conflicts and things like that,” he said.

“The attorney general saw my expertise as an asset for the government, and they sort of wanted to create some engagement with industry to affect policy and regulatory changes to support the B.C. industry. I think they thought that would be a good match.”

He said Attorney General David Eby approached him some time after the result of the May election was clear to gauge his interest in the role.

The NDP’s promise for the panel came after the previous BC Liberal government made radical reforms to the way beer, wine and spirits are taxed and sold in the province. The biggest change was a shift to a wholesale pricing system and away from a system where private retailers were able to buy their products using varying discounts off the government’s retail price. The change coincided with provincial sales taxes being taken out of the shelf price and added at the till.

The previous government also changed laws to allow restaurant owners to hold “happy hours,” where drink prices could be changed during the course of the day, and for B.C. wines to be sold in farmers’ markets among other changes.

gkorstrom@biv.com 

@GlenKorstrom 

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