What the Beer Store fight reveals about Ontario’s political parties

ANALYSIS: The Beer Store fight isn’t just about beer. Here’s how it can help us understand the nature of Ontario politics over the course of the last generation
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 03, 2019
Premier Doug Ford and Finance Minister Vic Fedeli stack cases of beer during a photo opportunity at a brewery in Etobicoke in August 2018.  (Cole Burston/CP)



Probably the most common reaction to the news that the Progressive Conservative government is going to legislatively end the 2015 agreement the Liberals signed with the Beer Store — and to my defence of that action — was, “So why doesn’t the government just end the 407 lease, too?” Note to self: Ontario is still not over the Mike Harris government’s 1999 decision to sign a 99-year lease.

The 407 lease is, indeed, harder to justify. A century-long agreement to give control of public infrastructure to a private corporation is hard to swallow even a generation later. In 2003, the Ontario Liberals won an election, in part, because they promised to regulate the tolls on the 407 — a promise they eventually said they couldn’t keep, because of the ironclad terms of the lease. Why didn’t they use the legislature’s power to blow up the agreement?

There are a few answers to that question, and they tell us a lot about the differences between the two parties that have divided up political power in this province for nearly a quarter century.

The first is that cancelling the 407 lease would almost certainly end up doing what cancelling the Beer Store agreement won’t: costing billions of dollars. In both cases, the government can eliminate its liability in Canadian courts, but it can’t eliminate its liability at the international tribunals designed to protect foreign companies. (A recent example: in 2017, the Ontario government lost a decision regarding its shameless offshore wind moratorium.) When it comes to the Beer Store, the projected billion-dollar damages are mostly fantasy, but the foreign companies that own the 407 lease could make a straightforward case that they paid the government billions of dollars for it — and that the government shouldn’t get to break the lease without paying up.

Cost is the simple answer, but it may not be the whole story. After all, the Liberals later incurred a billion-dollar charge when they opted not to build a pair of gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville. So is there something else at play?

I think there is, but, to understand it, we need to borrow a concept from international politics. One theory of international politics holds that the world can be divided into status quo states and revisionist states, according to whether they accept the structure and ethos of the international order or want to flip a table and change all the rules.

At the risk of retroactively flunking my undergraduate poli-sci classes, I propose that you can tell a lot about recent Ontario history by viewing the Ontario Liberal Party as a status quo power and the Ontario PC Party as a revisionist one.

During the 2003 election, the Liberals pretty much made this explicit. They promised that that they could end the fractious, chaotic politics of the Harris and Eves governments — most notably, by improving relations with teachers and other parts of the public service. The message from the Liberals was that they were a safe choice that could bring calm. Their 2007 re-election came about at least in part because voters were concerned that John Tory’s proposed school policies would reignite the tensions of the Harris-Eves years. After achieving power and inheriting the policy files they used to rail against (welfare, municipal amalgamations, school-board powers), the Liberals left them mostly unchanged.

The 407 lease fits this pattern: the McGuinty Liberals didn’t like it and would have preferred to change it, but they didn’t want to be seen as the kind of government that engaged in no-holds-barred politics to get what it wanted.

The PCs, on the other hand, have governed as revisionists. Under Harris, no part of the status quo was safe just because it was the status quo — the same is true under Ford. The current Tory administration is already talking about major changes to regional municipal governments. It’s committed to uploading Toronto’s subways to the province. Numerous agencies learned this spring that they can’t count on getting provincial funding this year just because they got it last year. Things may calm down over the next year, as Steve Paikin suggests, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Tories will start showing deference to the policies of the preceding government.

This view of Ontario politics would be useless if we didn’t talk about the voters: the thing that differentiates 2003 and 2007 from 1995 and 2018 is less about what the political parties were promising and more about what the voters were looking for. In 1995 and 2018, voters were eager for a clean break with the policies of the incumbents, so they voted for the Tories. In 2003, voters were sick of the constant pitched battles at Queen’s Park, so they marked their ballots for the party that promised stability and calm.

So the question for political analysts of all stripes is: What are voters going to want most in 2022?

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