That we would be heading into another battle in Saskatchewan over public vs. private ownership is not surprising.
This long-standing feud between left and right and everyone else that gets caught in the middle has been off and on for decades now. It was only a matter of time before something would revive this issue.
That it would be played out in rural Saskatchewan also isn’t all that surprising, either. Maybe the NDP no longer hold a prominent place in the rural Saskatchewan landscape, but some of their long-held principles like the co-ops and the need for public utilities distributing necessities like telephone, power, natural gas and insurance are still an everyday part of rural life.
However, these notions also rub up against the independent, free-enterprise, market-driven realities of today’s agriculture, oil and potash mining that is also part of the rural fabric. It would seem a natural place for conflict.
But what might be a little surprising is the battleground in which the next great privatization fight in Saskatchewan may now be fought — over the privatization of rural government-run liquor stores.
Undoubtedly at the behest of the Saskatchewan Party government, the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) announce earlier this month the closing liquor stores in Langenburg, Ituna, Ponteix and Kerrobert.
Interestingly, the government said it will be searching for potential franchisees among private businesses in these communities to pick up the slack. Applications for the franchises will be accepted until May 8, but it doesn’t appear to be quite the same arrangement as the other 190 liquor franchises now operating throughout rural Saskatchewan as a side business in local hardware and grocery stores.
SLGA Minister Donna Harpauer instead said the stories will receive a 15.3-per-cent discount on the SLGA rates, which is similar to the deal offered to the first four successful franchisees running these the first private wine and liquor stores in the cities.
Of course, Harpauer cited low sales volume and old buildings as the reason for the changes — contributing factors that can’t be ignored.
That said, this doesn’t quite seem like a simple corporate decision by the SLGA, either. Or so thinks the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees (SGEU) who represent the 12 employees that will be losing jobs in these communities. The union strongly believes this is part of the government’s narrative on public vs. private ownership.
Making Harpauer’s announcement even more intriguing is that it came just days before the Saskatchewan Transportation Company announced an annual loss of $13.3 million for 2013 — its 37th consecutive unprofitable year.
If ever there was a Crown entity that the Sask. Party government should be eager to privatize, one might think it would be the money-losing provincial bus company. But notwithstanding another lost and a dip in ridership, there really isn’t any interest in selling … largely because rural Saskatchewan recognizes there are no private buyers for this public service they would otherwise lose.
Liquor sales, however, are different. There are viable private options, making them a better front for the Sask. Party government in this fight.
Sure, there are many in these communities who will neither like the loss of what is a good business draw in the community or to see their neighbours lose good paying jobs.
But if these franchisees have a little more room to operate as private vendors and can turn once public stores into successful private ventures that help the local economy and enhance each community with a private cornerstone business, this becomes a bit of a success story.
And any such success story involving turning publicly owned stores into private entities certainly helps Wall’s argument when it comes to converting private liquor stores in the cities.
Rural Saskatchewan is as good a battleground for this fight.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.