Tim Hudak vows to privatize booze and gaming in Ontario if elected premier

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew

Ontario's Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has been making splashy headlines lately over his plans to privatize everything under the sun, including big targets like gambling and booze.

On Monday it was the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) that needed an overhaul, and on Tuesday his announcement surrounded the privatization of Ontario's liquor control board.

The CBC reports that Hudak promised to let corner stores sell booze and consider a full sell-off of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), should he be elected premier.

"The LCBO is a prime example of Queen's Park operating a commercial enterprise — from top to bottom — that should be exposed to private sector competition, enabling more consumer choice," he said in a statement.

[ Related: Allow liquor sales at corner stores, Hudak urges ]

Kudos to Hudak for not being hooked on the profits the LCBO brings in every year, but someone might need to organize an intervention for his headline addiction.

Campaigning in the absence of an election has become commonplace for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader … OK, every political leader. And campaigning while the government has locked the doors of Queen's Park is just good business.

But Hudak's back-to-back calls for privatization have the scent of small-C conservatism without the planning on how to roll them out.

As the National Post's Scott Stinson reports, Hudak avoided specifics during his OLG privatization press conference on Monday, sticking instead to an "MRI machines over roulette wheels" sound bite.

[ Related: OLG operations should be privatized, Hudak says ]

His lack of clarity might have something to do with the Criminal Code of Canada, which says provinces must "conduct and manage" lottery and gaming.

Or it might have something to do with keeping the message simple. Stinson points out that the OLG itself is looking for ways to shift itself out of parts of the gambling business.

The LCBO, however, should be a slam dunk for the provincial Tories. Public sentiment seems to be sharply against the corporation and demanding the government extricate itself from the industry seems like the equivalent of a political free throw.

[ Related: Exclusive one-on-one with Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak ]

The Ontario Convenience Stores Association recently presented government with a massive petition appealing for wider access to beer and wine. The governing Liberals even considered privatization, before deciding they relied too heavily on the profits.

So why would Hudak go only halfway with his announcement? Why only promise to consider privatizing the liquor control board and not promise to take action?

The idea of a full privatization is trumpeted occasionally, most notably as a 1995 campaign promise by Conservative Mike Harris. The idea was infamously abandoned after Harris was elected premier.

Former chief of staff Guy Giorno wrote in the National Post more than a decade later that the LCBO's "aggressive revenue generation made the corporation too irresistible to let go."

At that time the LCBO was bringing the province profits of roughly $600 million. Today, it is more like $1.6 billion. Plus taxes. If it was tough to turn off the tap then it will be tougher now.

Hudak didn't offer any concrete numbers this week, but said selling the crown agency would actually increase revenue. Without those numbers, however, the idea is just thin speculation.

Well, not just speculation, it also makes for a great headline. And headlines can be addictive.