Booze became a political football in Ontario once again on Monday as the three parties kicked around the Liberal government's new plan to expand the province's network of liquor outlets.
Some time during the next 12 to 18 months or so, after a detailed study has been done, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario will set up 10 so-called express outlets in existing supermarkets, and establish five new Vintners Quality Alliance outlets specializing in high-quality wines.
The LCBO has 630 regular stores, employing about 10,000 unionized workers, and 214 "agency stores" – chiefly rural grocery operations where it oversees alcohol sales.
The Liberals' move follows a vague but hotly debated proposal from Tory leader Tim Hudak to privatize parts of the liquor-retail system by allowing corner stores to sell wine and beer independently – a suggestion Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has labelled "boneheaded."
Mr. Duncan's plan, by contrast, would retain the government's near-monopoly on alcohol sales.
Tory finance critic Peter Shurman dismissed it as a cynical stunt designed to poach Mr. Hudak's ideas and divert attention from more difficult issues, such as the province's labour dispute with teachers.
Not true, responded Mr. Duncan's press secretary, Ali Vitunsky. The Liberals' proposal has been under consideration for at least a year, she said, and "a ton of thought has gone into this."
But she conceded the two plans are not unconnected.
"To be honest, when the Tories put out their quote unquote plan, there was a lot of feedback all over the place, and a lot of concerns we were hearing about involved access and convenience. And so in that regard, we heard from a lot of people … it sparked a lot of debate and we've been consulting with people along the way."
For its part, the provincial NDP voiced approval of the announcement.
"We've seen a lot of schemes to sell off the LCBO from Liberals and Conservatives, but time and time again they realize that keeping it in the public hands works for the people of Ontario," finance critic Michael Prue said.
The new express outlets will average about 3,000 square feet, and will be akin to other supermarket special sections, such as delis. But where and when they open has yet to be determined, LCBO spokesman Heather MacGregor said
"The test is going to be subject to the same LCBO process for which we determine where new stores will go. We look at demographics, development, other retailers in the area, and do a comprehensive analysis. We often choose locations that are close to places where people already spend their time, like grocery stores."
But Ms. Vitunski rejected a suggestion that the new stores will target booze-deprived voters in small rural communities.
"They're already pretty well served by the agency stores, which will not be affected by this. Under-serviced doesn't necessarily mean rural, it could mean somewhere in Toronto," she said.
The five new VQA stores, part of a regulated network selling wines from specific geographic locations, may or not be in the 10 new LCBO outlets. They too will be where unmet demand is greatest.
The expansion will follow a similar model in Nova Scotia and add a new layer to Canada's patchwork system of alcohol sales.
In most jurisdictions, the provincial government is the chief retailer, but Quebec allows private sales, and so does Alberta, where some grocery chains, such as Sobeys, Co-op and Costco, sell alcohol in stand-alone buildings, usually next to the grocery store, but separate from it.
Alcohol sales in Ontario during 2011-2012 totalled about $9.5-billion.
And while that sounds like a lot, Ontario has fewer alcohol-retail outlets per capita than any other province.