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Opinion: Ontario blowing $225-million to cancel its Beer Store contract is a scandal, not something to celebrate



Opinion: Ontario blowing 5-million to cancel its Beer Store contract is a scandal, not something to celebrate

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford gestures to a display of alcohol at an announcement saying the province is speeding up the expansion of alcohol sales, in Toronto on May 24.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Who asked Ontario’s government to blow upward of $225-million to accelerate the introduction of beer and wine in corner stores?

Is there an overworked nurse in Thunder Bay who has been pleading for respite in the form of 12-packs at her local convenience store? Have parents of children with autism been banging on the Premier’s door, demanding better access to Coors Light? Is there some sort of clandestine wine-drinking lobby in this province that told Doug Ford they simply can’t wait another 16 months for new places to shop for booze?

Or maybe Mr. Ford simply thinks Ontario is comprised of a bunch of beer-drinking yokels, whose support can be bought ahead of what will presumably be an early election call.

In any case, it is an absolute scandal. Ontario’s 10-year agreement with the conglomerates that own The Beer Store, which currently has exclusive rights to sell 12 and 24 packs of beer, was set to expire in December, 2025. That’s not an exceptionally long time to wait considering this government, to its credit, has already liberalized alcohol sales, with 450 grocery stores across the province currently licensed to sell beer and wine. But Mr. Ford has decided to speed up the timeline anyhow, wasting $225-million to move the date up to this September.

When Mr. Ford made the announcement on Friday, he celebrated that this move will offer Ontarians more “choice and convenience.” He also said that the plan will “create new growth opportunities for local brewers, wineries, retailers and small businesses.” He did not, however, note that Ontarians were going to have that choice and convenience anyhow, and that those growth opportunities for businesses were coming anyway, without spending nearly a quarter-billion dollars to essentially subsidize The Beer Store’s operations for the next 16 months. In exchange for Ontario’s support, The Beer Store must keep open at least 386 outlets until July, 2025 (it currently has 422 stores) and at least 300 outlets until the end of 2025.

To put the cost in perspective, that $225-million is roughly $100-million more than the Ontario government will spend to boost nursing enrolment over the next three years (the figure announced in the budget was $128-million). It represents nearly a third of what Ontario spends annually on autism services ($720-million). And it is almost equivalent to what the Ontario Liberals said it would cost in 2010-2011 to cancel a couple of gas-plant projects in Mississauga and Oakville. In reality, the cost for the Liberals to buy support in those ridings (which, of course, was paid for by taxpayers) rang in at more than $1-billion.

It’s oddly reminiscent, then, that while the Progressive Conservatives claim the cost to accelerate liberalized beer and wine sales will be $225-million, the Ontario Liberals produced documentation Monday claiming the actual costs will be more than $1-billion. That is plausible, but speculative (the Liberals include, for example, a rebate of $375-million in fees The Beer Store currently pays to the LCBO, and $300-million in lost revenue for licensing fees that will ostensibly be scrapped). It is not speculative, however, to note that cancelling The Beer Store’s contract early wastes millions of dollars that could surely be better spent elsewhere. Indeed, Ontario is desperate for family doctors, affordable housing, addiction and mental health services, new transit that actually has estimated completion dates, and so on. Instead, Mr. Ford is offering them more places to buy beer, slightly ahead of schedule.

Reacting to the announcement Friday, Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie took to the social media site X, where she called the deal “a blatant attempt by Doug Ford to buy the next election.” But when smart politicians buy elections, they do it with things the electorate actually wants, like gas-plant-free ridings, inflation cheques, or new hospital plans. They aren’t asking for more places to buy beer when they can’t find an affordable place to live, or when they know they’ll have to wait half a day (or more) in an emergency room for acute care.

Buck-a-beer was a good gimmick for Mr. Ford six years ago, when the social and economic climate allowed for such trivialities, and when he was vying to replace a deeply disliked and scandal-ridden government. But we are not in 2018 anymore. We’ve endured a pandemic and significant inflation, and now Mr. Ford is at the helm of his very own scandal-ridden government. Spending $225-million (or more) of taxpayer money to get out of a contract with The Beer Store early is corporate welfare at its dumbest. Beer-brained Doug Ford needs to move on.

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