Buck-a-beer announcement could have been much more

By Labour Day, Ontario residents may be able to buy beer at LCBO, the Beer Store, or at a local brewery for $1 per bottle or can — of course, that’s if the province’s breweries decide to take Premier Doug Ford up on his challenge to reach the sales floor he lowered by 25 cents Tuesday morning.

While the premier appeared exuberant about quickly keeping his election promises, the scheme — perhaps mirroring the beer it could produce — seems a tad flat. Yes, theoretically consumers are well served by breweries trying to make more economical products, but one would think craft brewers would have already explored that angle in an attempt to compete with larger international producers and squeezed their dimes as far as they could. If the equation means sacrificing quality made-in-Ontario ingredients or trying to cut corners otherwise, it hardly seems worth it — which is likely why few brewers are hitting the $1.25 floor now. So, the potential pay off in limited-time LCBO placement and advertising must have significant value to those brewers willing to try Ford’s challenge and thus, there also likely is a cost to the government in the loss of revenue from people  willing to pay for those perks or in its own efforts to promote homegrown products that feed the supply chain here.

Much debate has ensued since the recent election campaign about Ford’s decision to make beer prices a priority, both symbolically and through policy when there are many social and fiscal challenges immediately facing government. Actually, it could have been a strong rallying point for the type of change many Progressive Conservative voters were looking for, but sadly the premier’s handling of the file thus far does little to support that narrative.

Doubtless, many Ontario residents have puzzled about why one can drive five minute over a bridge from  Ottawa to Gatineau, Que. and buy 24 cans of the same beer for a cheaper price. Taxation and the province’s monopoly-based distribution system surely are factors in that equation and both should be in this government’s wheelhouse.

Craft beverage producers across the province have been clamouring for continued legislative changes that would allow them greater market access than is currently provided at the LCBO or the privately-owned Beer Store. The creation of craft beverage industry stores, the ability to trade products with other producers to sell, or even work to open up trade across provincial boundaries would do much. Ford’s own Government and Consumer Services Minister Todd Smith had previously worked with the industry on a private member’s bill put forward to improve access and could have introduced real change.

To actually improve beer pricing for Ontario consumers, this government has to actually look at systemic changes and make hard decisions. That will involve extensive consultation with members of the industry and the public. If government is going to tax beverage alcohol at a premium, one hopes it has plans to put those revenues into programs that reward innovation in the production of agricultural ingredients, in distribution systems, and in operations at local breweries that create jobs and keep money in the local economy. Helping these small businesses will greatly benefit Ontario.

In Picton, Tuesday, it was hoped Ford would have uncorked at least a glimpse of a more fulsome strategy. He has the expertise in his ranks to do just that. Buck-a-beer wasn’t seizing the opportunity, it was much ado about a tiny change and easy pickings for critics. Surely, this government could and should do better.

-Adam Bramburger