Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Alberta's and Ontario's Liquor Boards: Why Such Divergent Outcomes?

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Alberta's and Ontario's Liquor Boards: Why Such Divergent Outcomes?

Article excerpt

Canadians rely on public bureaucracies to distribute alcoholic beverages. With the very notable exception of Alberta, which privatized the Alberta Liquor Control Board (ALCB) in 1993 and established a private liquor retail market to replace it (Flanagan 2003; Laxer et al. 1994; West 2003), (1) all Canadian provincial governments play an active role in the distribution of alcohol through large, publicly owned liquor boards. The largest of these Crown corporations, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), has undergone a remarkable set of reforms over the last twenty years. The dingy stores, staffed with surly employees who provided poor overall consumer value, are gone and have been replaced by a retail environment that is warm and inviting, where the quality of staff is high and selection of products superb. Alberta's market-based system and the pivotal role that the publicly owned LCBO plays in Ontario, then, offer two contrasting examples of how to distribute alcoholic beverages in Canada. Even more interesting, it is the Ontario model--the reformed, publicly owned LCBO--that has become the standard most other provinces, to varying degrees, have tried to emulate.

The purpose of this article is to understand why the Conservative governments of Ralph Klein and Mike Harris did such radically different things with their respective liquor boards. Why did Klein choose to liquidate the ALCB and establish a private market to retail alcoholic beverages, while, in stark contrast, the Harris Tories chose not only to retain the LCBO in public hands but also to pour significant amounts of capital into it to allow it to complete its process of modernization? Given the similar ideological views of both of these governments and the congruency of the timing of the election of each, we might have expected to see parallel policies with respect to liquor distribution regimes, but we do not.

The answer to this question and this article are both based on research for a doctoral thesis. The article will argue that the divergent outcomes between Alberta and Ontario are due to different decisions made in the upper echelons of each provincial government with respect to their liquor boards and how each board could (or could not) help resolve the financial challenges both governments faced in the early to mid-1990s. The article starts with a brief explanation of the decisions made by both the Klein and the Harris governments and provides a basic explanation for the divergent outcomes. This description of the policy outcomes will also include an explanation of the composition of the liquor distribution regimes in each province. On a theoretic level, the article draws some of its analytical perspective from John Kingdon's "multiple streams decision-making model" (1984) and will show that both governments faced similar problems in the early to mid-1990s--a dismal economy and poor public finances--but that the solutions chosen, and the political terrain that each set of decision-makers faced, were dependent on a host of province-specific contextual factors (see Table 1).

While this may explain the rationale and the actions of the key decisionmakers in both governments, this brief examination does not, however, fully explain our divergent outcomes. For that, we must dig deeper into the institutional, cultural and political histories of both provinces and their respective liquor distribution regimes. Picking up from Kingdon's three-pronged framework, the article will draw on four characteristics of "historical institutionalism" to help explain the milieu in which the key decisions were made (Pierson 2000; Skocpol 1985; Thelen 1999). Kingdon's multiple streams decision-making model, then, is encapsulated within a wider theoretical perspective of historical institutionalism. It is the vital importance of province-specific factors that makes the framework of historical institutionalism optimal for explaining these two divergent outcomes. …

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