PC leader Tim Hudak had Ontario drinkers pausing mid-pint on Tuesday, when he declared that he would privatize the LCBO if he were elected premier.
In the latest in a series of policy trial balloons Hudak has floated since Premier Dalton McGuinty abruptly announced he was stepping down, the conservative leader said he wants to end what he sees as the province's paternalistic and outdated approach to liquor control.
"The LCBO system was created in 1927. That's the year Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic," said Hudak in a press release. "And the basic idea hasn't changed since: government doesn't trust Ontarians to make their own responsible choices."
Hudak wants the province to consider an array of options, "ranging from the sale, partial sale or greater private franchising" of the LCBO, and "sales in corner or grocery stores."
Not surprisingly, Hudak has the support of the Ontario Convenience Store Association, whose members petitioned Queen's Park earlier this year for the right to sell alcohol.
The association issued a news release on Tuesday that said "Ontarians, particularly in rural areas, are tired of the long drives and long lines, and lack of convenience" under the current system.
Association CEO Dave Bryans said that 200 convenience stores already have a special arrangement with the province to sell liquor in communities without stand-alone LCBO outlets, and they're often better at age checks than their government-run counterparts.
"This can be done responsibly, and Ontario's chain convenience stores have shown they have the track record to prove it," Bryans said.
In the past, Toronto bar-owners have complained that the LCBO's monopoly on liquor sales and focus on mainstream retail markets make it difficult to purchase rare brands. Niche products of the kind that have fueled the city's growing cocktail scene can be ordered on a one-time basis, but at prices that are reportedly much higher than in other jurisdictions.
The Liberal government however has no intention of overhauling the LCBO, and argues that the current regime is the most effective way to safely regulate the sale of alcohol.
"The current system offers a wide range of products at competitive prices, promotes Ontario wines, beers and spirits, and encourages responsible reuse and recycling," a finance ministry spokesperson wrote in an email. "Expert bodies, including the World Health Organization and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, are strong supporters of the public control of alcohol retailing as an effective social responsibility measure."
The opposition NDP agrees. Rosario Marchese, MPP for Trinity-Spadina, says the LCBO is a major government asset, and Hudak's proposal to off-load it is motivated by a "blind galloping Conservative ideology, that if we privatize things, things will be better."
The LCBO netted $1.63 billion for the province last year. Hudak says that as long as the government taxes alcohol sales at current rates, it wouldn't lose any money by privatizing liquor stores, and could actually save by not having to invest in infrastructure related to LCBO store operations.