Conservatives "don't know" if private liquor sales would increase revenues

TORONTO – A proposal from Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to privatize liquor sales in Ontario may not generate more revenues for taxpayers, the party’s finance critic admitted Thursday.

“You ask about how we know we’d make more money, I can tell you frankly we don’t, but we don’t know that we’d make any less money,” Peter Shurman told reporters.

“We believe that it’s essential to sit down with people who are specialists and come to a conclusion on, as Tim says, what the appropriate model should be.”

Earlier this week, Hudak announced he would not cut taxes on alcohol, but he would consider selling part or all of the LCBO, which brought in $1.65 billion to the province last year, excluding taxes.

Standing beside Shurman at a news conference Thursday, Hudak insisted any sell off of the LCBO would be different than the sale of Highway 407, which the last Conservative government sold in 1999 in what many consider to be a fire sale.

The Tory leader said Alberta never saw any drop in revenues when it privatized liquor sales, and pointed to a 2007 study done for Ontario’s Liberal government that showed privatization could increase revenues for taxpayers.

“We’ll be careful and thoughtful,” said Hudak.

“If you look at cross jurisdictional experience and you look at our own study here in Ontario as recently as five years ago, they had a net increase of revenue to the province of $200 million.”

The Liberals pointed out that Hudak used to oppose privatizing the LCBO, and dug up old quotes from former Conservative premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves saying they’d considered the idea and rejected it as a bad deal for taxpayers.

Hudak’s proposal to sell the LCBO is among several trial balloons the Tory leader floated this week, including one to have the province get out of the gambling business and Thursday’s release of a white paper on a new deal for the public service.

That new deal will mean a smaller public sector, with thousands of jobs cut, and new government positions would have to be open to everyone, said Hudak.

“The reductions in the size and cost of government and positions on the payroll will be significant. I’m not going to mislead anybody by saying we can keep the same size public service,” he said.

“I think we should open up government job openings to all those who are qualified, not simply because they hold an OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees) union card.”

Hudak also wants to reduce the size of cabinet from 24 to just 16 members, and open any government services and labour contract worth more than $10,000 to competitive bidding from the private sector.

“I’ve been at the cabinet table, I’ve seen the inertia of government as cabinets grow larger, and…the more politicians you have around the table the more proposals you bring forward to spend money to expand the size and cost of government,” he said.

“I believe a streamlined cabinet can focus on actually reducing the size and cost of government and get our economy moving again.”

Conservative insiders say Hudak’s right-wing ideas are meant to show a clear difference between them and the Liberals and New Democrats in advance of an election expected sometime next spring.