TORONTO - Ontario's Liberal government moved Monday to counter a Progressive Conservative proposal to allow corner stores to sell alcohol by announcing a pilot project to sell liquor and wine in 10 grocery stores.
"The goal here is better consumer access," Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said in an interview.
"Ontarians are, generally speaking, very pleased with the system of (liquor) distribution, they just want more access, and we think this is the right way to go."
Some Ontario shoppers will have a new option for buying alcohol starting late in 2013 when the Liquor Control Board sets up Express stores inside 10 supermarkets in communities yet to be determined. Consumers would still take their alcohol purchases to an LCBO cashier, not to the grocery check-out with their food items.
"This is getting the product into the stores and making it much more consumer accessible, and I think this is the first step in a range of new opportunities," said Duncan.
"I think it’s a very important development."
Duncan expects the pilot project will be well received by consumers and will then be expanded to other areas.
The LCBO will also create new VQA boutiques for Ontario wines inside five of its own stores, announced Duncan.
"These new VQA boutique stores within the larger LCBOs is really going to put a highlight on our wine industry," he said.
The Progressive Conservatives have said it's time to overhaul Ontario's antiquated liquor laws and allow more private sector sales, especially in convenience stores.
Duncan said the changes announced Monday were not in response to the Tories' plan, which he warned would mean less revenue for a government already facing a $14.4-billion deficit.
"That will destroy our wine industry because they won’t stock in corner stores VQA products and things like that," he said.
"They’ll just jam in the highest volume things, which inevitably will hurt not only our wine industry but our craft beer industry."
Duncan called the Tory proposal "boneheaded," a description that PC finance critic Peter Shurman found amusing.
"I take that as a compliment coming from the ’bonehead-in-chief’ of the Liberal party, outgoing Finance Minister Dwight Duncan," said Shurman.
The Tories accused the Liberals of "throwing darts at a wall" to release a policy on New Year's Eve so the government could "change the channel" from its ongoing dispute with teachers over legislation that freezes their wages for two years.
The Liberal plan does not give consumers more choice, which would be a benefit of the Conservatives' plan, and still has the government running the largest liquor retailing business in the country, added Shurman.
"Deal with the debt and deficit issues by freeing up the capital in the LCBO for better government uses," he said.
"We’ll give you the choice and we’ll take the billions of dollars (in LCBO equity) and start using them to a better purpose than operating a monopolistic business."
The New Democrats applauded the Liberals for keeping the LCBO in the public sector.
"I think people will be happy to see a plan that increases convenience and choice while ensuring the LCBO can continue to provide good service and revenue to the province," said NDP finance critic Michael Prue.
The LCBO turned over $1.65 billion to the province last year, excluding taxes.
PC Leader Tim Hudak has rejected the Liberals' claim that selling any part of the LCBO would deprive the province of much-needed cash, and said revenues would actually increase because there would be more choices open for consumers.
The Ontario Convenience Stores Association released a petition last July with 112,500 signatures gathered across the province supporting the idea of broader retail availability of beer and wine.
Former Liberal premier David Peterson promised to allow beer and wine sales in corner stores in the 1980s, but never followed through on the pledge.