That’s some expensive cheap beer, Mr. Ford

That’s some expensive cheap beer, Mr. Ford
Photo by Jon Parry / Unsplash

There are few subjects I enjoy writing about more than beer. I love beer. I financed my law degree working at a fine English pub in Quebec City that typically had 250 different beers, and rotated frequently depending on what was available through private imports. I have tried thousands of different kinds of beer, including some (pickle lager) that were at best forgettable and others (kriek) that have become lifelong favourites. I’m always up for trying a new beer, and not to be more obnoxious a snob than I absolutely must be, but I almost never drink what comes out of the vats over at the big commercial breweries.

So when Ontario Premier Doug Ford tries to win my vote by allowing cheap beer, cider, pre-mixed drinks and various other plonks to be sold at corner stores and gas stations, I’m not as impressed as all that. I also grew up in Quebec. I’m used to vin de dépanneur. It’s just normal to be able to acquire alcohol without having to go to a store that’s called The Beer Store. (If you want a solid backgrounder on this critical public policy issue, I strongly recommend this article.)

However the plan to speed up this boozy liberalization means breaking a near-monopoly contract with the aforementioned Beer Store (owned by multinational breweries) and to break this contract this year instead of letting expire it in December 2025 would cost $225 million.

Or much more, if you believe opposition parties. No doubt the truth is somewhere between $225 million and $1 billion.

It would be half a million it would be too much. Let the thing die of its natural death and we’ll continue as we have for, well, ever until early 2026, at which point we will have a giant party to celebrate being able to buy a 2-4 at the Quickie.

Where I’m from we call such momentous events des lendemains qui chantent but I assure you the government is a lot more boring in celebrating the freedom of beer. Except, I guess, for the part where Doug Ford claims, with a straight face, that the $225 million will turn a profit.

In the grand scheme of things, $225 million (or whatever) isn’t a very large sum of money. It’s a drop in the $214-billion provincial budget.

As I said in my Citizen column on the subject, I’m not the first to point out that this money should very much be used for better things, which is a bar so low you’re just as liable to trip over it as you are to hit it with your hands.

My suggestion is to add it to the pile of housing money, and buy older rental buildings to guarantee they will be kept off the speculative market and remain affordable for the families that need them.

In my column I mention a great Ottawa initiative to do just that, to which the public is invited to contribute. By which I mean, “to invest.” They’re not looking for donations, but for investors, including modest ones, to finance the purchase of existing below-market rental buildings to ensure the people who live there don’t get renovicted.

The campaign’s goal is to raise $1.72 million. I’m not especially good at math, but I note that in the grand scheme of things, $1.72 million is really not a lot of money. Yet it requires effort and publicity and all manner of volunteering to achieve this fundraising goal. A $225 million payoff to breweries represents 130 such campaigns. That means every city in Ontario with a population of 25,000 or more could have one and we’d have money left over.

It’s a relatively new idea in Ontario but as it turns out other people have tried it before with great success, including in Burlignton, VT back when Bernie Sanders was mayor, 40 years ago.

Treating housing as an investment has its place in a market economy. But if we give speculators and developers all the space to call all the shots, as we have done for much too long, we’ll wind up with an even bigger housing crisis with all the social costs associated with that. We can do better, starting with keeping a certain percentage of housing units outside the market for people who need them.

Slightly more convenient beer can totally wait another year and a half.