An unknown party involved in the government's effort to privatize the provincial liquor warehouses got 77 pages of information this week on what was going on behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, most of the interesting stuff was deleted. The publicly posted document was in response to a freedom-of-information request from an "interested party."
The request was filed before the government's abrupt decision to kill the idea in order to close the deal with the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union. It sheds a marginal bit more light on one of the curious capers of Premier Christy Clark's time in power.
It came out of nowhere - announced offhandedly in the budget. It struggled through the spring and summer, gathering increasing controversy and suspicion as it went.
Then it died a quick death on the negotiating table, as the union and government struggled to put a deal together to end the BCGEU strike.
After scraping around for enough savings to present a modest package to the union, the two sides were still just far enough apart to make a settlement uncertain.
"We needed a closer," said one BCGEU official. The government gave it to them, cancelling the privatization project in time to give Clark some good news to announce at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention on Sept. 28.
Under the original schedule that government staff were supposed to follow, that was just about the time bidders were to make their final offers for the warehouse function.
Which means an awful lot of work by the four bidders and by the government staff got parked in a hurry.
The documents posted this week just give fragmentary glimpses of how the project went before it was terminated.
One of them noted that the Liquor Distribution Branch is a fully integrated operation, and privatizing the warehouses would unwind some of that integration. Differing approaches to handling beer and wine also complicated things.
Another report stated that productivity in the government-owned warehouses is comparatively low. Measured in cases handled by hour, B.C.'s number is 18.6, compared to an average of 24.8 in other provinces.
But the more compelling reason for the attempted privatization was that the government wanted to cash in anything it could to produce some cash flow.
It was referred to in the February budget as if it had already been announced. The government had actually postponed the news, but the budget was already printed.
So it rolled out in curious fashion and the curiosities continued.
It became clear that Exel, the Alberta company that handles the same function in that province, pitched the idea to the B.C. Liberals. The government last considered the concept in 2002 and rejected it. That held right up until a face-to-face meeting in the summer of 2011, where Exel made its case and persuaded cabinet ministers to change the policy.
The political suspicions developed after B.C. Liberal strategist Pat Kin-sella was identified as a lobbyist for the firm. Opposition New Democrats started raising suspicion about the deal. "Demeaning, insulting and disgusting," responded Liberal House leader Rich Coleman.
The BCGEU matched the NDP with its own campaign against the idea. It was keyed to the idea that booze would cost more if the warehousing monopoly was handed over to a private firm.
(The union was all set to have liquor-store staff wear buttons asking "Do You Want to Pay More?" just before the plan was shelved.)
Part of that idea was that a private company would be vulnerable to federal taxation if it took over. Liberals swore the province wouldn't lose a nickel.
The argument never really got resolved conclusively. There are people who say the current warehouse system could work far better.
But the terms of the deal included an up-front payment from the winning bidder. That cost and the obvious need for a profit would have to be made up somewhere, and the customer at the counter is always the obvious choice.
The argument is over now, probably for all time. It's the third time a government has considered the concept and rejected it.
In the back of their minds, Liberals may have figured at the outset that a logical case for privatization could have been a wedge issue to highlight the NDP-union connection.
Instead, they eventually concluded that dropping the idea was necessary to form their own ties to labour - a signed contract to clear the decks for next year's election.
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