WINDSOR - Premier Kathleen Wynne says she won’t shrink from a battle with The Beer Store as her government thirsts for a bigger cut of sales despite brewers’ warnings it would mean higher prices for suds lovers.
The comments came Saturday as Wynne commented in detail for the first time on recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel on squeezing more money from publicly owned agencies and the distribution system for beer, wine and spirits.
“They’ve laid out some challenging ideas for us and I’m absolutely willing take those on,” Wynne said of the panel headed by TD Bank chair Ed Clark.
“Will it be easy, will it be a path that is without any challenges? No it won’t be but that’s not a problem from my perspective. That’s exactly why it needs to be taken on,” she added after a 22-minute speech to party members in this border city for a strategy session and victory party after winning a majority in the June 12 election.
Clark’s recommendations Friday were a timely distraction for Wynne with the legislature starting its fall session Monday and her Liberals under fire for a bailout of the mostly vacant MaRS office tower across from Queen’s Park, with taxpayers on the hook for hefty interest payments.
“Clearly the Liberals feel like they’re on cloud nine after their election win but I think . . . they’re really on MaRS and so far that trip has cost us over $300 million and continues to cost us $450,000 a month,” said New Democrat MPP Liza Gretzky, who won the previously Liberal riding of Windsor West in the spring vote.
The Clark panel said the province, which is looking to eliminate a $12.5 billion deficit, could wring more out of assets like the LCBO and Hydro One to free up between $2 billion and $3 billion for Wynne’s $29 billion transit and transportation improvement plan.
Among other things, Clark said LCBO stores should begin selling 12-packs of beer to increase sales, Hydro One should sell its distribution utilities like Hydro One Brampton and taxpayers should get “their fair cut of the profits generated from beer producers.”
Wynne brushed aside questions on the impact on beer prices for consumers, saying “this is not about doing anything that is going to disadvantage people” and that implementation details will have to be worked out.
Jeff Newton of Canada’s National Brewers warned in the Toronto Star on Friday that higher prices would result.
“I don’t see how they can’t,” he said, noting the government already taxes beer at a rate of 44 per cent.
Clark, whose panel included former Progressive Conservative treasurer Janet Ecker and former NDP cabinet minister Frances Lankin, maintained the government should ensure the foreign-owner Beer Store chain “won’t just pass on the additional cost immediately to the consumer.”
Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex) warned consumers to brace for higher prices regardless as the government scrambles to balance the budget as promised by 2018.
“They’re desperate for cash, these are desperate times for the Liberals, they’re going to be finding any way possible to raise revenues instead of reducing spending,” he told reporters after Wynne made a 22-minute luncheon speech to party activists and MPPs.
He said Wynne is missing an opportunity to boost sales and get more private-sector involvement in the alcohol distribution system by opening more LCBO “agency stores” in both urban and rural areas.
“If we were to build Ontario again we wouldn’t be building the same communist-style liquor system we have,” McNaughton added.
Wynne said she plans to get the Clark panel’s recommendations on track through measures in the fall economic statement next month and in the spring budget.
“We want to move forward and take action . . . so we can, in effect, recycle the value of those (provincial) assets and reinvest in the infrastructure that is needed today.”