Jordan: Let’s get one thing out of the way. I live in Ontario. It is more convenient for Canadians to buy beer and wine basically, anywhere else in this country. Does my province need to do something about that? Well it might be nice, but did we really need all this?
News Clip: We’re bringing back a buck a beer to Ontario. Tailgating, it is a must do before NFL games south of the border, and it seems the parking lot parties are about to be allowed right here in Ontario. Starting today, LCBO stores, The Beer Store, authorized grocery stores and off site winery retail stores can now sell alcohol between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. seven days a week. The Ford government is holding a rare Sunday sitting to advance a bill that would terminate Ontario’s contract with the beer store.
Jordan: Did we really need all this? That is a much tougher question, and it is a question that might end up mattering to all Canadian taxpayers. Yes, even those of you who have spent the past year smirking at your friend’s in Ontario. See, it turns out that local booze policies can have national implications both financially, and politically. This is especially true if you’re as fixated on them as Doug Ford’s conservative government has been. So what is the strategy behind this focus on loosening liquor laws? And considering that easier booze is not exactly an unpopular position, how has the messaging gotten so mangled that the government is flailing in the polls? How will that impact the critical Ontario vote in October’s federal election? And is the answer to that question the reason why Doug Ford sent his MPs back to their writings for the next five months?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story. It has been a year of beer. Cynthia Mulligan is the Queen’s Park correspondent for City News. Hi, Cynthia.
Cynthia: Hi Jordan. How are you?
Jordan: I’m doing really well. Can you tell me the last thing Doug Ford’s progressive conservatives did before they went on a five month break?
Cynthia: Well one of the last things that they did was an announcement by the finance minister, who’s been stick handling the file on the beer store contract, and he opened up four grocery stores that will be available to sell beer and wine. Now this is actually under the existing master framework agreement because under the contract the liberal signed, they could have 450 stores, grocery stores that sold booze. And so they’re taking it up to that max. But what they’re also doing is creating more smaller LCBO stores in 200 communities that they say are under served. So they’re definitely….. they want this to be very available to Ontarians.
Jordan: They’ve also worked really hard to get out of Ontario’s contract with the beer store. But this latest move is not that. Is that right?
Cynthia: No, this is a bit different. Now, this coincides a few hours earlier that they tabled their legislation. They passed their legislation, excuse me, to kill the beer store contract and eliminate penalties. So they’re basically saying well we’ve changed the legislation, the contract is null and void. Oh, you can’t sue us for breaking the contract is essentially what they did on their very last day before the house rose for five months, and it’s really interesting because what they’re doing though in essence is they’re raising the ire of a lot of people, and it has not sat well with Ontarians in general because I think that critics have made it very clear that this could end up costing, you know, close to a billion dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars down the road after The Beer Store, which has promised to fight this in court. If they do win, it could be extremely expensive for Ontarians. Maybe the Ford government isn’t thinking that far ahead though, because that could be years down the road. Also, they could be setting off an international trade war because The Beer Store is owned by multinationals and they could appeal to various trade agreements like NAFTA, for example and then it becomes a federal problem for Ottawa.
Jordan: So maybe you can explain to me and listeners who aren’t familiar with it, why The Beer Store contract is such a huge deal and why the government wants out of it so much so that they might risk a trade war.
Cynthia: It’s so very interesting, isn’t it? Because many people are saying, why don’t…. like it’s a 10 year contract for four years in. Why don’t you just do it gradually? Why don’t you just wait six more years? But they seem insistent on doing it as soon as possible, and what I’ve been told by somebody inside the government is that it’s polling well to their base. First of all, it was a campaign promise by Doug Ford. I suspect when he made the promise because it seemed so easy to do; I suspect that they were unaware of the implications and this potentially very expensive breaking of the contract. But then he had promised it, and it’s something that they really want to keep a promise on because it appeals to their base. Largely younger white males, they like it so they want to deliver.
Jordan: Well that’s one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you after Doug had been in office a year, because we’ve seen kind of a string of these kind of announcements come out of Queens Park and I wanted to try to understand the overall strategy behind it. So I mean, take me back to two weeks ago, and the social media plan that the PC Caucus unveiled.
Cynthia: Well they…. an alert went out and MPPs were pretty much ordered to stand in a corner grocery store, and take a photo of themselves in front of shelves where beer could one day be and tweet longingly that wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy a cold brewski at your corner store right now? And they did it on mass and they were even given talking points off what they should be saying. An example of what they should be saying some did it virtually word for word, which was quite amusing, but it backfired dramatically. I mean, the public push back was incredible, and they were met with, largely with scorn by hundreds and hundreds of angry voters who don’t understand why the government is willing to risk any money at all to break this contract. They want the money to go into health, education, and a variety of other things. So the timing is especially bad because post budget all we’ve been hearing about is cut after cut after cuts, and this government has promised to be, you know, very fiscally aware, and yet it seems like they’re throwing money down the drain by eliminating this contract. So it’s really made people very angry, and I think it’s one of the key reasons why the government is flailing so abysmally in the polls right now. I mean, there have been six straight poles that must be very alarming to the government.
Jordan: So why are they taking five months off now? I shouldn’t say they’re taking five months off. That’s not entirely fair, but that the Legislature will not sit for five months.
Cynthia: The legislation will not sit. They are going to be working very hard to reset their government. Multiple people have said that they know they need a reset. You know, if you think about it, if we want to really put this in context, this is a government that was brand spanking new. Their leader has never sat in the Legislature before. Heck, he wasn’t even the leader three months before, you know, he only started running after Patrick Brown exited so quickly after his scandal, and then Doug Ford only became the leader three months before the election, and instead of taking a break after the election, they hit the ground running in the Legislature. They never had time to take a breath and plan properly. They never did, and I think now they’ve all realized Oh, hang on. We’re kind of in trouble here. We’ve made some big mistakes, like the autism file, for example, we need to really think about where we’re going, we need to have a plan and we need to have the proper communications because their communications has been sorely lacking, and they missed the boat on things that they could’ve turned around, but they didn’t promptly and then it became too late and the story got away from them.
Jordan: Give me an example of one of those.
Cynthia: Christine Elliott. She posed in front of a corner store talking about how you know, wouldn’t it be nice to have beer in corner stores? And it came out a few days later that that corner store had actually been sanctioned for selling underage tobacco, and she got heaps of scorn for that. What they didn’t say right away in the first few minutes, was yeah, but that was only released this day. There’s no way she could have known that when she took the photo. Now wouldn’t that change the temperature? But they didn’t, and they knew about it, but they didn’t. Another problem, for example, is you know they’ve taken a lot of flak over consolidating public health units across the province, and what they never mentioned, they neglected to mention for weeks, was that this was actually a recommendation that the Liberals ignored from I believe it was the auditor general.
Jordan: So they had all the cover they needed for that.
Cynthia: Yeah! But they didn’t use it until 2-3 weeks when they have lost control of the messaging.
Jordan: How different is this government from previous governments? Municipal and provincial you’ve covered, in terms of that kind of communication style?
Cynthia: Well, to me it shows how green they are, and you know, if you think about the Liberals were in power for 15 years and even when Dalton McGuinty left, and Kathleen Wynne took over. There were still a lot of the brain trust that was left in place. This government hasn’t had that luxury. So they’ve had to train everyone from scratch. You have a lot of very new, very young communications people, and I think it’s a real learning process. So I think part of this five months is to get people up to speed, on track and have a really focus because I think that they lost control of their focus, lost control of their message, and they ended up playing wack a mole, and everything got away from them in the last few months. I also think…. quietly, and what I’ve been told is that there’s, you know, a lot of tension between Doug Ford’s Camp and Andrew Shears camp, and I suspect that the federal conservatives have made it very clear they are concerned that Doug Ford is a liability and he’s their Achilles heel, and Andrew Sheer needs Ontario to win this next election. So I would suggest that there have been some conversations between the two, and Doug Ford has been told to lay low and not hurt them, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re not rising to the Legislature again until after the federal election on October 28th.
Jordan: To bring it back to where we started, because you talked about them losing focus. Is it strange that so many of the… aside from the cuts surrounding their budget, so many of the individual policy achievements that I remember from their year in power are around booze and beer? Can you just, like, list some of them off? Am I crazy? Or is that…
Cynthia: No you’re not crazy and I totally agree with you, and I don’t think voters were clamoring loudly for more options. Like it is kind of surprising but now you can tailgate and they’re going to open it up in corner stores.
Jordan: Don’t forget buck a beer.
Cynthia: Drink earlier…. buck a beer, which was, come on, that fizzled out badly, right? That was a failure. Nobody’s interested in that really. None of the brewery’s want to make it because it’s not;They just can’t make a good beer for that. Buck a beer you can drink earlier in the morning, the hours will be extended in LCBO’s. I mean, they’re just making it very accessible and available. Now Ontario isn’t as accessible to be able to buy your booze as Quebec, for example.
Jordan: That is very true.
Cynthia: That is very true, and I grew up in Quebec. So, you know, I mean, Quebec didn’t fall apart because it’s more accessible, so I don’t think it’s going to, you know, have a dramatic effect in Ontario.
Jordan: You know one by one, all these things could be seen as badly needed liberalization of old Ontario liquor policy.
Jordan: But what I’m curious about is, is what is the strategy behind it? And what have you heard about the internal messaging? That kind of made this such a priority.
Cynthia: Eh, it’s just Doug Ford made the promise, and we’d want to keep it, and our base likes this. It’s that simple.
Jordan: Can they win re election with just that base? Or they need to change course?
Cynthia: No they need to expand beyond their base, and listen, it’s only one year in. They’ve got three years to turn it around, and you know, the Liberals are still leaderless. So don’t underestimate Doug Ford ever. I think everybody should realize that by now. Don’t underestimate him, but I am startled at times by the vitriol that voters have for this government.
Jordan: Yet now here’s the question, because on the one hand it feels like it’s been a really, really long year. But to your point, it is really only a year, and will they get the benefit of the doubt if they can use these five months to reset?
Cynthia: I think that they’re going to have to do a major reset. I think they’re going to have to do a Cabinet shuffle, which I hear is coming, possibly next week. They’re going to have to change some key ministers. For example, the autism community will never trust Mr McLeod, so they’re going to have to make some serious changes to win that back, and to prove to voters that they can actually treat these families properly and well, and he’s going to have to change his tone. He comes across, I think, as very brash and as a bully, and I think that they’re going to have to soften that, and they know that too, they know that they have to soften his image. And then, you know, in a couple of years, people might forget.
Jordan: What kind of conversations do you think have actually taken place between Ford’s camp and Sheer’s camp? And I know, you know, you and myself and a lot of other people that there, have kind of speculated about staying out of the federal election could be the reason for this break. But would they really talk to each other about that and plan that? I mean, you mentioned there’s a tension there.
Cynthia: There is a tension between the camps, and not necessarily between what I’m told is, it’s not necessarily between Sheer and Ford themselves, it’s between the people behind them. They don’t get along. So, you know, they’re cousins, right? And I would suspect that it was…. it had to have been strongly….. Can I prove it? Has somebody come right out and said it? No. Nobody will admit it, but the date can’t be a coincidence.
Jordan: Thanks Cynthia.
Cynthia: You’re welcome.
Jordan: Cynthia Mulligan is the Queen’s Park correspondent for City News, and that was The Big Story. You can find more big stories at the bigstorypodcast.ca You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. We would love to hear from you, and you could subscribe for free as always and rate us, and review us, wherever you get your podcasts on Apple, or Google, or Stitcher, or Spotify or any of the other ones. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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