Queen’s Park will start treating Ontarians “like responsible adults” with an expansion of the availability of beer and wine, says Finance Minister Vic Fedeli.
Fedeli, who will table the Progressive Conservative government’s first budget on April 11, told an Empire Club of Canada luncheon that Ontario is moving “into the 21st century.”
“‘Quick’ doesn’t quite capture our government’s pace thus far at Queen’s Park. For the Star Trek fans in the audience, we’ve been moving at ‘warp speed,’” the treasurer said Thursday.
“It’s time for everyone in government to start acting like the competition is coming, and treat people like responsible adults,” said Fedeli.
“We are taking steps to revolutionize the way we deliver services, and that includes how people buy alcohol,” he said.
“Our government is actively working to expand the sale of beer and wine to corner stores, box stores, and even more grocery stores,” he said, touting plans to build upon the previous Liberal government’s expansion of sales to 450 of Ontario’s 1,500 supermarkets.
“We made a commitment during the campaign to provide consumers with greater choice and convenience, and we plan on delivering. We firmly believe this will not only open up the province to more choice, it will lead to competitive prices, and without the need to privatize our valuable government assets.”
Fedeli — who, like Premier Doug Ford, does not drink alcohol — said “Ontario has the lowest density of retail outlets selling beer, wine, cider and spirits in Canada.”
“Quebec has over 8,000 retail stores selling beverage alcohol. …Can you guess how many outlets Ontario has? Less than 3,000.”
That tally includes two privately owned Canadian wine shop chains and the Beer Store.
Fedeli did not mention that under the 10-year master framework agreement signed with the Beer Store — the 450-outlet retailer mostly owned by the parent companies of Labatt, Molson, and Sleeman — the province could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars of penalties.
That carefully worded accord — hammered out by former TD Bank chair Ed Clark, who was former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s privatization guru — is in place until 2025 and Queen’s Park would owe the Beer Store damages if it is broken.
“We have our work cut out for us,” the minister acknowledged, adding he has retained former Alberta cabinet minister Ken Hughes, who has some expertise in the field, as a special adviser.
While Alberta privatized alcohol sales more than 25 years ago, beer remains cheaper in Ontario than it is there.
A 24-pack of a popular brand like Labatt Blue or Molson Canadian costs $10 more in Alberta than in Ontario, where a case goes for about $38.
Fedeli insisted Ontarians would not be crying in their beers following his budget despite Ford’s austerity push that could see $6 billion in cuts.
“Contrary to what our opponents would have you believe, our approach to restoring balance to Ontario’s books will be measured and thoughtful,” the treasurer said.
“We will not balance the budget at the expense of our critical programs. We will not make life harder for families in this province by raising taxes,” he said, promising to eliminate a deficit that has ballooned to $13.5 billion due to, among other things, accounting changes.
“I call the path to balance the Goldilocks approach. It can’t be too short because no one would believe it. And it can’t be too long because anyone — except the previous Liberal government – could do that. It must be just right.”
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie