Ontario Politicians Finally Having a Mature Discussion About Alcohol

Blog, Regulation, Steve Lafleur

Ontario has long had a puritanical streak that vexes observers. This is most evident in the way that the provincial government treats alcohol. The province still has a government run  liquor monopoly — the Liquor Control Board of Ontario — which was set up to transition the province out of prohibition, and grants the Molson-Labatt owned Beer Store a virtual monopoly over beer. The drinking age remains 19, high by international standards, and the 2am last call remains in place (believe it or not, it was 1am until Mike Harris’ government). While the latter may seem normal by North Ameican standards, it seems odd that a major world city such as Toronto has to tell it’s adult residents and tourists to kindly go to bed at 2am.  If the above hasn’t convinced you that Ontario politicians have a puritanical attitude towards liquor, consider this: “happy hour” is illegal in Ontario.

Over the years some minor changes, such as the introduction of Wine Rack stores (which are only allowed to sell certain Niagara wines) have been introduced. Regulations have been amended to allow for alcohol to be served until 2am at wedding ceremonies (I still recall one ceremony where several people drunkenly drove to make last call because of the former 1am last call for weddings); people are now allowed to walk around with beer at festivals; servers are now allowed to carry alcohol across public sidewalks to bring it from inside a bar to the patio; and it is now legal for a business to give a customer a free drink (but only for a special occasion such as a birthday — it’s still illegal otherwise). Ontario has come a long way since the 1980s, when it was illegal to purchase a drink at a bar without food (let alone the 1970s when gender segregation was enforced in bars, or the 1970s when bars were forced to close during dinner hour). But many of the changes over the last few years have been in the direction of more restrictive liquor policies. Mandatory minimum prices have increased; two for one drink specials have been banned; the use of terms such as “happy hour” and “cheap drinks” has been outlawed.

Fortunately, the last few days have provided reasons for optimism about liquor policy. First, Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak pledged to end the Beer Store monopoly, allow beer sales in corner stores and grocery stores, and halt the expansion of LCBO locations (and assessing options such as privatization). These are all welcome news, especially given that Mr. Hudak flatly refused to endorse any of these ideas while running for party leadership. Assuming Mr. Hudak has a 1/3 chance of becoming the next premier, there is roughly a 30% chance that these policies will be adopted (rounded down, since there’s always the possibility that he’ll neglect to follow through — politicians do that sometimes).

The second reason for optimism took place yesterday, when two Ontario Liberal Leadership candidates — former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray and former Ontario cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello — came out in favour of allowing corner stores to sell alcohol. This, frankly, is the bigger news. When one party supports a shift in policy, the other typically uses it as a wedge issue (even in instances where they themselves hold the same position). This often hurts that party’s chances of forming government, or causes them to back off of the issue. But when two of the three major parties support a change in legislation, the odds of adoption increase significantly. Even if neither Murray or Pupatello becomes leader, the fact that Liberal leadership candidates have come out in favour of this makes it more likely that the whoever the next leader is will soften their stance on liquor policy. This is good news. If I were setting odds, I’d wager that this specific policy now has a 40% chance of adoption (to be clear, I am not actually taking bets. That would be illegal in Ontario).

The above developments should serve as a reminder that it isn’t parties, but public opinion that push shifts in policy. Hudak, Murray, and Pupatello, recognize that these policies present them with political opportunities. They have an incentive to back these changes to win over voters who are fed up with being treated like children. One can only hope that more politicians in Ontario will listen. They fail to do so at their peril.