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Editorial: Border line

Information being foisted on the public about the federal excise tax on beer is pure nonsense.
- SaltWire Network

On the one hand, we talk about the benefits of global trade deals.

Looking at the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement signed with Europe last year, some of the big wins were the fact that European cheeses would be more readily available.

Oh, and that European wines and spirits would be able to enter this country tariff-free. The benefits? More selection and lower prices.

On the other hand, we can’t even legally bring more than a small amount of Canadian wine or liquor across our unpoliced and barely marked provincial borders.

And the Supreme Court of Canada is on side with that, with a ruling last week in a case called Her Majesty the Queen vs. Gerald Comeau.

Comeau was found with liquor and beer he had bought in Quebec and tried to bring back to New Brunswick. The RCMP caught him and wrote him a $240 ticket for violating New Brunswick laws limiting the amount of extra-provincial alcohol that could be brought back into the province.

The law, of course, is in place to protect the New Brunswick government’s monopoly on liquor sales, and its ability to place whatever kind of markup it wanted on alcoholic beverages. (The other side of the argument, made loudly but with little base in fact at this point, is that the law is meant to keep liquor sales safe and supervised, something that could be done using any number of other legislative schemes. The benefit to using this particular method is clearly windfall revenues.)

But that’s not how the Supreme Court read the legislation.

“The objective of the New Brunswick regulatory scheme is not to restrict trade across a provincial boundary, but to enable public supervision of the production, movement, sale and use of alcohol within New Brunswick,” the court wrote. “It plainly serves New Brunswick’s choice to control the supply and use of liquor within the province.”

It also “plainly serves” to have a captive market that made the New Brunswick liquor agency $168 million in profits last year alone.

While the law against trans-border shipment of alcohol “in essence impedes cross‑border trade, this is not its primary purpose,” the court said, so the law doesn’t violate the Constitution Act.

Talk about twisting things into a legal pretzel.

Imagine the situation if a provincial government brought in a law to charge individuals $15 per doctor’s visit, with the primary purpose of stabilizing that province’s fiscal situation. If its “primary purpose” was provincial fiscal stability, would the rule then not be a breach of the Canada Health Act?

Of course it would.

It’s a bit of a joke, really. The Supreme Court decision has been pretty widely derided as a case of the court picking politics over jurisprudence.

One thing’s for sure: it’s hard to argue against interprovincial free trade when you’re out campaigning for its international equivalent.

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