Why does the left tie itself in knots over booze in corner stores?

OPINION: Doug Ford promised to liberalize alcohol sales in Ontario, and his opponents called him irresponsible — but progressive parties need to learn how to make life easier for people, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 25, 2018
Ontario beer cans displayed in a grocery store
Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford has pledged to allow the sale of beer and wine in corner stores. (Richard Buchan/CP)

Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford is willing to go where his predecessors Patrick Brown and Tim Hudak weren’t: trying to sell Ontario voters on his party by pledging to allow the sale of beer and wine in corner stores. He embraced the perennial provincial election issue on the Friday before the Victoria Day long weekend, telling presumably thirsty voters that by the next May Two-Four, they’d be able to buy beer far more conveniently than they can today.

And this week, both the Liberals and New Democrats decided to dig their heels in on behalf of the status quo.

Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne took arguably the more mockable position, trying to assert that there was some kind of mystical distinction between her party’s decision to let grocery stores sell beer and wine, and Ford’s pledge to allow the same at corner stores — corner stores that can already sell cigarettes, lottery tickets, and other addictive things the government makes a mint from.

(Oh, and — as the National Post’s Chris Selley has been shouting from the rooftops for years —beer is already sold by corner stores in small communities that can’t support LCBO and Beer Store locations.)

Not to be outdone, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said that if her party forms the next government, she’d review the timid, incremental expansion of beer and wine sales suggested by the Liberals.

This is bananas on several levels.

First of all, by expanding sales to grocery stores, the Liberals have already conceded that the Beer Store/LCBO retail duopoly wasn’t serving consumers effectively. What Ford is proposing simply takes the Liberal position more seriously and goes further with it.

Ah, but in Ontario, we don’t actually take consumers seriously, on this and plenty of other subjects. Instead, the status quo is defended through whispers of “social responsibility,” as if that were a magical argument-ending incantation from the Harry Potter books. The private market can’t be allowed to sell alcohol, because then children and other vulnerable people might get their hands on booze.

Except that there is, of course, the Beer Store, whose position has been protected by provincial policy for decades. And licensed bars and restaurants, which aren’t managed by paid provincial employees and nevertheless get to sell liquor to customers. And then those aforementioned agency stores in rural Ontario. And privately owned retailers (Wine Rack and Wine Store), which have been around for a while now. All of these private-market actors can apparently be trusted to protect the public as they hawk their intoxicants. As can those paragons of public virtue, Canada’s large grocery store chains, which — oops — are alleged to have engaged in a decade-long conspiracy to fix bread prices.

Of course, the point is that trust doesn’t actually enter into it: provincial and municipal governments between them have an extensive system of regulators and inspectors to make sure that private and public operators aren’t committing crimes against public health, and Ford’s proposal would simply extend that system of enforcement to corner stores. Even an incrementally freer system of beer and wine sales wouldn’t lead to anarchy.

The other common argument for the status quo is that the LCBO helps fill the government’s coffers with non-tax revenue, and we shouldn’t risk killing such a lucrative goose while it’s laying golden eggs. Never mind that since at least 2005, the Liberals have known — because a hand-picked panel told them so — that it was possible to liberalize liquor sales in Ontario while making more money relative to the status quo, not less. “More” as in $200 million more ($250 million in 2018) per year than the province currently takes in.

Anticipating the public-health panic, the panel also helpfully demolished most of the fear-mongering arguments against liberalization more than a decade ago.

In short, when the arguments for the status quo aren’t simply false, they contradict one another: the government knows that, and so does anyone else who’s been paying attention to the file.

Cynical observers will point to the influence the public-sector unions and private-sector lobbyists have over both the Liberals and the NDP, but courtiers are as old as political power itself and don’t explain much on their own. A more fundamental problem for the left is that it tends to undervalue the importance of these kinds of consumer issues. Lots of people would like to be able to buy beer or wine more easily than they can now and don’t find any of the reasons to say no to that very compelling, but the left has nothing to offer them.

Nevertheless, progressive politicians like Wynne and Horwath have staked out their turf, deriding Ford’s idea as just more numbskull populism. But all this leaves me with a simple question: Given all of the above, how is it that the left is letting itself get out-flanked by someone like Ford on stuff like this? To put it another way: if Doug Ford is making the left look dumb on this file, it’s because the left is doing most of the work for him.

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