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Changes allow caterers to get liquor licences for clients in B.C.

Nick Didlick/The Globe and Mail

Rich Coleman's incremental reform of British Columbia's liquor laws took him to the kitchens of a catering firm, where he announced such companies will now be allowed to obtain liquor licences for their clients.

The energy and housing minister, a veteran MLA whose responsibilities include liquor policy, was not even through the announcement Wednesday before saying he'd have another one to make within days. "Stay tuned," he said smiling. "Within the next number of days actually, you might see something."

It's part of a drive to update liquor laws that has led Mr. Coleman, among other things, to change rules to allow alcohol to be brought into B.C. from other provinces tax free, and to let people take their own wine into restaurants provided they pay a corking fee. Wednesday's announcement ended the "nonsensical" rule that meant, as Mr. Coleman put it, that someone getting married could have a caterer handle the food, but needed to obtain their own licence to serve alcohol.

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Mr. Coleman and industry observers present for the news conference said the new approach, effective Wednesday, would lead to greater efficiency and opportunity for a $500-million-a-year industry to fold the alcohol role into their responsibilities. Under this approach, the caterers can charge the markup for handling alcohol, or the client can still hold on to the responsibility.

"Many [caterers] have been frustrated, as have their customers that they could not take care of the liquor aspect, as the minister talked about, of doing the catering service. This corrects this," said Mark von Schellwitz, Western Canada vice-president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

Debra Lykkemark, owner of Culinary Capers Catering where the news conference was held, was among the B.C. caterers who urged Mr. Coleman to make the reform. She suggested the new policy could mean a 10-per-cent increase in business for caterers. She also said it would be appealing to international clients hosting large groups who don't want to grapple with managing liquor for guests.

When a reporter joked, "Couldn't you do this before my wedding?" Mr. Coleman chuckled and said the change was too late for a senior civil servant in liquor control and licensing who had a family wedding.

"Sometimes when you start to do regulations and changes, it takes longer than you would like it to," he said. "Sometimes it's like snap your fingers and people think you can get the perfect law. Sometimes you do it too fast and just have to go back and fix it. In this particular case, there has been extensive consultation with the caterers of B.C. so we can get to where we are today."

Mr. Coleman, the MLA for Fort Langley-Aldergrove, is on his second political tour of duty working with alcohol policy. He was in charge of the issue from 2001 until 2005, and picked it up again a year ago. Since then the minister, who is also deputy premier, has seemed in a rush on the file.

He claimed liquor policy won't necessariy win supporters for the embattled BC Liberals, who are running behind the opposition NDP in the polls. "I don't look at it as votes. I think most people in the public see this as common sense. We have liquor laws that have been established and pop up that were written 25, 30 years ago in old legislaive statutes. We have gotten rid of a number of those and that's what we're doing now, just making sure we modernize."

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He said he is working on priorities that include managing service to minors, dealing with issues around overconsumption and overcrowding of establishments. The last is the illegal sale of liquor because such activity denies the government needed revenues.

"We will take a look at the act as a whole when we have time," he said in a remark that seemed to ignore the reckoning with the voters that the BC Liberals are facing in the May 14 provincial election. Mr. Coleman said he is confident the party will be re-elected.

The NDP's Maurine Karagianis, the critic on liquor policy, said in an interview Wednesday that an NDP government would not scrap Liberal liquor reforms, but would try to carry on with modernization in a more coherent manner that what she referred to as Mr. Coleman's "ad hoc" approach. "We know liquor policy needs to be modernized," she said.

She said Mr. Coleman should have been able to roll out an overarching reform policy in one announcement as opposed to a series of "photo opportunities."

"When you roll out the policy in bits and pieces in a disjointed way it gives no assurance to the industry that they know what to expect," she said.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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