TORONTO - Privatizing parts of Ontario's Crown corporations responsible for electricity, lottery and liquor is something the cash-strapped Liberal government must consider, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday.
The province is looking at selling portions of Hydro One, Ontario Power Generation, Ontario Lottery and Gaming and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to raise money, but hasn't come to any final decisions, he said.
"I think we have a responsibility to look at these things (but) no final decisions have been made," said McGuinty.
"Nothing's coming to cabinet in the near future, but we will be continuing to take a careful look at this."
With a deficit of almost $20 billion this year, the province must consider new ways to pay for improvements to health, education and other government programs, said McGuinty.
The Liberals had been highly critical of the former Progressive Conservative government's failed efforts to partially privatize Ontario's electricity system in 2002, warning it would have benefited traders on Bay Street, not consumers on Main Street.
Eight years later, the Liberals are looking at a much broader privatization scheme, which would see a new SuperCorp created to oversee the Crown assets to be sold. It would be responsible for selling a portion of three nuclear power plants, electrical transmission lines and more than 600 liquor stores as well as casinos, slot machines and lotteries.
McGuinty went out of his way Tuesday to reassure voters the Liberals won't jump into any privatization arrangements unless the return on investment would be good for taxpayers.
"We're not going to move ahead with anything of any kind, in any way shape or form, unless it serves the long-term interests of the people of Ontario," he said.
"It's a big step and that's why if we do take it, we will not take it lightly."
Organized labour planned to protest at a Liberal cabinet meeting Wednesday over the creation of a SuperCorp to oversee the portion of the electricity, liquor and lottery assets that would be sold off.
"Together, the four Crown corporations earn more than $4 billion a year in pure profit for Ontario taxpayers, not counting the taxes they collect," said Warren Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
"Surrendering our assets and the income from them will rob our children of the revenues they need tomorrow. It's short-term gain for long-term pain, and it's a bad, bad idea."
The Opposition said asset sales were a "desperate cash grab to fuel runaway Liberal spending," and called the SuperCorp an "inefficient monster corporation" that would reduce the value of each asset.
"It's a plan suggesting that those four corporations aren't able to run themselves and he's going to sell them off," said Progressive Conservative critic John O'Toole.
"I think it's a desperation move, really. They've got a revenue problem and this is a new way of looking at it."
The New Democrats said the Liberals were looking at asset sales after driving up a record deficit because they need cash to fund promises for next year's provincial election.
"They're looking for some way to go into an election with a basket full of goodies to be able to give out, but the problem is these things always end up as a raw deal for the public," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"It's like the thin edge of the wedge, and by saying it's only a partial sale, who knows where it could end?"
McGuinty shrugged off the suggestion that people are not ready to see their government create a complex new financial structure to privatize Crown assets so soon after a global recession.
He said people want their government to ensure it has the continued capacity to support health and education programs and environmental protections.