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Ending liquor monopoly in Ontario would be win-win-win

Rethinking the LCBO could save taxpayers a tremendous amount of money

Ontario is teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff. Under its previous Liberal government, the province became the most indebted sub-sovereign unit in the world. Unfortunately, poor policy-making and the COVID-19 pandemic have only worsened its situation. Ontario’s debt is now over $404 billion, which means each Ontarian’s share of that debt is a whopping $27,000.

As the pandemic ends, Ontario will need bold policy-making to dig itself out of the hole it’s in. One bold policy that would help is privatizing the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), or at a minimum capping its expansion and ending its monopoly status.

Scrapping the LCBO and shifting to a private, preferably uncapped, retail model would benefit consumers by offering them more choice and convenience. Ontario currently has the worst alcohol retail density in Canada, mostly because the combination of a government monopoly (LCBO), with a government-sanctioned private monopoly (The Beer Store) has limited the scalability of retail access. As a result, Ontario has only one alcohol retail outlet for every 4,480 residents. In comparison, British Columbia has one store for every 2,741 residents, Alberta one for every 1,897 residents, and Quebec one store for every 1,047 residents. Ending the LCBO’s monopoly would help bring Ontario onto a par with other provinces.

More importantly, rethinking the LCBO could save taxpayers a tremendous amount of money. The LCBO’s operating costs are bloated. Based on its 2019 annual financial statement, the average sales, general and administrative (SG&A) cost per store is $1,515,000 per year. With 666 corporate stores, that is a considerable expense to taxpayers. Private alternatives, like high-inventory private retailers in Alberta, cost significantly less to operate. Based on Alcanna’s 2019 annual financial report, the average SG&A for a private outlet comparable to an LCBO, is just $676,000 per year. If we could snap our fingers right now and fully transition the LCBO out of the government’s operating model, taxpayers would save an astounding $559 million per year. If the Ford government is looking for low-hanging fiscal fruit, this is it.

Labour unions and other supporters of nationalized alcohol distribution would obviously have an issue with the complete elimination of the LCBO. They will argue that privatization would threaten the well-paying jobs of the thousands of Ontarians who work for the LCBO. This could be true, as it’s unlikely that private retailers would require their workers to be members of OPSEU, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which has negotiated wages well above the market rates for comparable jobs. That said, there is a compromise solution that both expands consumer choice, maintains those LCBO jobs, and saves taxpayers millions of dollars. It is to stop the LCBO from expanding its operations and let the private sector fill the void.

Each year, on average, the LCBO, makes a net addition of seven new stores in Ontario. If the province were to simply stop the LCBO’s expansion, and have the private sector fill the gap, taxpayers would cumulatively save $88 million after five years. At the 10-year mark that figure would be $323 million. And these savings are only the ongoing operational savings and don’t include the tens of millions of dollars the LCBO spends to acquire storefronts for expansion.

This compromise solution would allow the LCBO’s existing outlets to remain operational, while also allowing for more retail access and a hybrid model moving forward. On top of the cost savings, there might well be revenue gains. Hybrid and private retail models for alcohol sale (as in B.C. and Alberta) actually generate more alcohol tax revenue per capita, a further benefit for the public purse. Politically, this compromise solution is a no-brainer. Increasing access, fuelling private business opportunities, generating more revenue, and all the while maintaining current LCBO employment would be a win-win-win.

The Ford government has already laid the groundwork for such an approach. Buried in the licences and permits schedule in the 2019 budget, the province effectively cleared the way for a truly free and open alcohol market in Ontario. The bill states that “A person may apply to the Registrar for a licence to operate a retail alcohol store, operate as a wholesaler, or deliver alcohol.”

Ontario has opened the door for a consumer-friendly retail model for alcohol that would finally end the LCBO’s monopoly. Full privatization would be best but if that is too great a stretch politically, a free-entry compromise would still benefit all Ontarians. The government has created the possibility of such a change. For the sake of consumers and taxpayers, it should now follow through.

Originally published here.

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