A Half-Million Dollar Hangover

By Jason Menard

The fact that Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara has summarily dismissed a recent report on the future of the LCBO isn’t so bad – what has Ontarians in need of a stiff drink right now is that we’re left picking up the $500,000 tab!

I admit, it’s been a while since I’ve bought a case of beer, but the price hasn’t gone up that much, has it?

Instead of drowning their sorrows, Ontarians should be up in arms at the decision to essentially shelve The Beverage Alcohol System Review and ignore its recommendations. I mean, I get frustrated when it rains after I water the garden, thinking that I’ve wasted my time – but it’s not like someone’s paying me $1,000 a day to do it.

If the concept of privatizing the LCBO is too stiff of a drink to swallow straight up, there are a number of sub-sections that are worth the government taking a look at.

The tourism sector was represented with the idea of loosening the regulations to allow Ontario resorts to offer all-inclusive packages. Now, not too many people will be forsaking Cuba for Cambridge, but having the option of offering all-inclusive packages, including booze, would certainly be attractive to our vacation hot spots like the Muskokas and Niagara Falls. The ancillary benefits are high for taxpayers, but the idea is sitting on a shelf somewhere – now aging like a fine wine.

The concerns of small brewers are being ignored. Micro-Breweries have expressed their frustration with the difficulty of competing with the big boys for shelf space on the racks of The Beer Store and the LCBO outlets. Opening up the process would have enabled local retailers to prominently feature local products. Quebec is a prime example in that their microbreweries enjoy equal – if not, at times, preferential – treatment in certain retailers!

But these ideas won’t even be examined. As the report states, the market is changing but we’re using a system that was put in place in the 1920s. Producers, bars, restaurants, and other vendors are surviving in spite of the system – not because of it. To not even entertain other opportunities and possibilities is unconscionable.

Our retail environment is changing. The mom-and-pop grocery stores are, in large part, a thing of the past. Big box stores and mega grocery centres are popping up left and right. As the report states, this marketplace will eventually mature – will the LCBO be left behind?

One of the great misconceptions out there is that the report is advocating a complete deregulation of the system. This isn’t going to be like Quebec, where every dépanneur on every corner has a cooler full of booze ready for the taking. The proposal suggests that a maximum of 10 licenses be issued to the highest bidders who would have the right to market and sell alcohol across the province!

Unless the owner of Jimmy’s Corner Store has a few million burning a hole in his pocket, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to compete with the big boys – and that’s a good thing in this case. It will be the Wal-Marts and the Loblaws of the province that will have the means and the ability to distribute booze in their aisles. And they’ll also be the best equipped to police the situation.

Publicly, no one will admit it, but privately everyone knows that buying alcohol underage in Quebec is as easy as falling – drunkenly – off a log. In fact, at some corner stores it seems the age of majority is a foreign concept. But, Ontario’s proposal would allow the large companies with the wherewithal to monitor sales to benefit from it.

And what do we, as taxpayers get, as benefits? Increased convenience, more competition, a chance at increased revenue, and, potentially, better regionalization. Referring back to Quebec, between the SAQ, grocery, and convenience stores, a nice bottle of wine or a six-pack is only a short hop away – usually with more convenient hours.

But if the provincial government doesn’t want to entertain the concept of a more open marketplace, then that’s their decision. If they choose to shelve the entire project, burn a half-million dollars, ignore any potential solutions, and disrespect the time and effort put in by the study’s authors, then that’s the true travesty.

And that nauseated feeling we all have right now comes from a hangover brought about by lost opportunity.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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