Not every political policy has to be a calculated game

Saskatchewan Party debates lowering drinking age to 18

Frederic Sierakowski/Rex/CP Images

Young Canadians may drive a car at the age of 16. At 17, they can join the Canadian Forces and be asked to give their lives for their country. In many provinces, 18-year-olds can be called to jury duty and thus decide on the fate of fellow citizens. They can also vote, or get married without their parents’ permission. And yet, to get a drink in a bar, most Canadians have to be 19 years old. Is this fair? Saskatchewan, to its credit, is about to ask the question.

At a Saskatchewan Party convention earlier this month, members passed a resolution calling for the provincial drinking age to be lowered from 19 years to 18. Such a move is not out of line with the province’s neighbours; both Manitoba and Alberta allow 18-year-olds to drink, as does Quebec. The rest of the country sets the age of majority at 19.

Saskatchewan Party Leader and Premier Brad Wall agreed the topic was worth debating. “We take resolutions at the convention very seriously,” he said. “But before we make any changes we are going to have to consult.” The mere suggestion he’d consider the idea was met with an instant barrage of criticism.

Lobby group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) immediately demanded the exact opposite course of action. “I would hope that the Saskatchewan Party or any government body would not lower the liquor age,” Diane Fontaine of MADD told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. “I would hope they raise it.” MADD routinely demands that drinking and driving laws be toughened across the country.

Another skeptic, Peter Butt, associate professor of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, noted various physiological reasons why the drinking age should not be lowered and added: “I don’t think there are that many 18-year-olds that are suddenly going to go out and vote, so it seems to be of limited value politically.”

Butt has a point. It does seem unlikely a switch in the drinking age will provide Wall with an increased majority next time he finds himself at the polls. And this is precisely why the resolution, and the premier’s reaction to it, seem so refreshing.

We live in an era when political moves are endlessly strategized and rigorously focus-tested to ensure maximum public appeal with minimum fuss. But as a result, many issues lacking in sufficient upside are treated as dangerously toxic. The mere act of discussing perennially controversial topics—abortion, to pick a recent example—has come to be considered an act of heresy, not to mention political suicide.

While there may not be an obvious or immediate political payoff to debating the drinking age in Saskatchewan, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a closer look. Public discourse in this country ought to be robust enough to consider questions of fairness, regardless of political advantage.

Critics of lowering the drinking age admittedly make some strong points. Keeping alcohol away from high school students, for example, seems like a good idea. So too is the goal of reducing drunk driving. Yet the drinking age in the United States is uniformly 21 and the U.S. rate of fatal crashes involving alcohol exceeds that in many provinces with drinking ages set at either 18 or 19.

Further, Saskatchewan is the only province to impose administrative penalties on drivers caught with a blood alcohol level of 0.04 per cent: the toughest impaired-driving standard in the country. So Saskatchewan obviously takes the issue of drunk driving seriously.

Saskatchewan Party youth representatives, the source of the proposal, argue the current drinking age creates problems on university campuses, where most frosh cannot legally buy a beer. The current law obviously doesn’t eradicate underage drinking, rather it pushes it out of sight, where greater dangers lurk. It also makes sense to harmonize Saskatchewan’s drinking laws with those of its neighbours. And as we noted earlier, Canadian society already recognizes 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds to be adults in many circumstances. Is it fair to deny them a drink if they can already drive, soldier or vote?

We should seek balance and thoughtfulness, rather than exaggerated severity, in our laws. Continually ratcheting federal criminal sentencing guidelines higher and higher is not a convincing policy for reducing crime, despite its popularity among the Harper government. The same goes for zero tolerance laws that replace intelligence with impulse, as well as recent demands that every volunteer get a police check before coming within shouting distance of children. Ever-harsher rules do not necessarily improve society.

There are worthy arguments on either side of the drinking-age debate. But that’s no reason to avoid it. Wall is right to take on the hot topic of cold drinks.

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