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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper delivers a speech at a rally in Laval, Que., on Monday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

A re-elected Conservative government would provide $400 million more in loans over the next four years to help the beleaguered manufacturing sector in Central Canada, Stephen Harper said Tuesday in releasing his party's long-awaited platform amid increasing global economic uncertainty.

Harper, speaking to the Canadian Club in Toronto, said the Conservatives would add $200 million to the Automotive Innovation Fund and another $200 million to the Strategic Aerospace Defence Initiative.

The Tories would also abolish tariffs on a wide range of imported machinery to bolster manufacturing efficiency, he said.

The party would also abandon its controversial changes to film and television tax-credit eligibility.

Opposition parties have targeted Harper for withholding the Tories' policy book until just a week before the Oct. 14 federal election, saying the delay showed the Conservatives had no plan to deal with the economic troubles that have sent global financial markets spiralling in recent days.

Harper said "some are disappointed" that an incumbent government is campaigning on a plan to move forward in the same direction as it governed, but dismissed the criticism as a "view that unless a plan is brand new, it's not a plan."

"If you are making it up in response to the latest news or the latest change in the stock market, then it is obvious you really don't have a plan," Harper said.

"Prudent leadership does not set economic strategy for the nightly news or rewrite plans for the morning papers. On the contrary…the strengths of a plan are advanced preparation and consistent execution."

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'The election is just seven days away and they are just unveiling the platform now?'

— Srakken

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The funds are the latest in the series of campaign announcements made by the Conservatives, who describe their proposals as "modest, affordable" measures that will benefit working Canadian families in times of economic uncertainty.

"If we choose to stay the course, [with] lower taxes, lower debt and prudent spending, Canada will come out of the current economic downturn stronger, better and more prosperous than ever before," Harper said.

Opposition plans 'recipe for disaster'

He also ruled out running a deficit during any years of a Conservative mandate, a day after appearing to soften his stance on emergency spending.

"I think I was asked one question whether I would run a deficit and I said no. That's my answer," he told reporters after his speech.

The Conservative leader denied he was appearing insensitive to Canadians who fear their savings could melt away in the economic turmoil, saying his government has already introduced practical measures for seniors and families to save money.

"I'm the first to admit I'm not the most emotionally expressive guy," Harper said. "There's a lot of panic, but the government can't panic. Canadians must be assured that the government knows where it is going and that is obviously what we are trying to communicate them in this election."

The most recent national survey from The Canadian Press/Harris-Decima put the Tories at 31 per cent, 10 points below their highest point during the campaign, and just five points ahead of the Liberals with 26.

The rolling poll sample represents 1,251 interviews conducted Friday through Sunday and is considered accurate to within 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

During his address, Harper again tried to reassure investors amid continuing market drops and escalating global economic turmoil, while repeating his warning that his opponents' plans would increase taxes for Canadian energy and commodities companies, among the hardest hit by the crisis.

He reiterated that the level of spending promised by his rivals would require raising taxes and bringing Canada into deficit, which he labelled a "recipe for disaster, nothing more, nothing less."

"As the saying goes, it wasn't raining when Noah built the ark," he said. "Which is why when the rain came, Noah didn't need to panic and he didn't switch boats."

Layton invokes Great Depression PM

Speaking Tuesday in British Columbia, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion again attacked Harper's platform as "too little, too late," saying the Conservative leader "failed at his job" in preparing Canada's economy for uncertain times.

"Stephen Harper says, 'Don't switch boats in the middle of a storm,' but we have a captain who's asleep at the wheel," he told reporters following Harper's address.

"For the sake of Canadians, what we need to change is the captain and his crew."

Also in B.C., New Democrat Leader Jack Layton invoked the name of Canada's prime minister during the worst years of the Great Depression in dismissing the Conservatives' plan, saying it "completely fails to address what our economy needs now and what our country needs over the next four years."

"Mr. Harper's response to the crisis in the banking system is to say that everything is fine, that nothing needs to change, that there are no problems," Layton said during a campaign appearance in Courtney, then added: "R.B. Bennett couldn’t have said it better himself in 1930."

When pressed by reporters on the statement, the NDP leader denied he was being alarmist in raising the spectre of the Great Depression and said Canadians realize these are "serious times."

"I think Canadian investors are very concerned at the present time, and what they want to see is the government understands that there are problems and is ready to take action," he said.

Dion has promised a 30-day action plan to address pressing economic issues if he becomes prime minister, with stepped-up spending on infrastructure, consultations with regulatory agencies and private-sector economists and talks with the provincial premiers.

"His retail politics is not a vision," he told reporters. "Maybe if he had spent less time distorting me and my plan, he would have been able to release a platform on his own by now."

The Conservative platform also includes previously announced proposals, such as:

  • A two-cent-a-litre cut in taxes on diesel and aviation fuel over four years totalling $600 million a year once fully implemented.
  • Maternity, parental leave benefits for entrepreneurs who pay into employment insurance.
  • $85 million in tax breaks for families where one spouse forgoes full-time work to care for a disabled family member.
  • Maximum life sentences for offenders as young as 14 convicted of first- or second-degree murder; maximum 14-year sentences for youths who commit violent crimes.
  • Teens over 14 who commit serious crimes would no longer have their identities protected.
  • Ending conditional sentencing, also known as house arrest, for 30 serious crimes, including robbery, theft and arson.
  • Pledging $113 million over five years to crack down on environmental crime, including maximum penalties of $6 million for companies and $1 million for individuals.
  • New tax credit totalling $150 million a year for parents of children under 16 enrolled in eligible arts programs.
With files from the Canadian Press