Tom Mulcair is taking his pitch for growing employment in Ontario's sluggish manufacturing sector straight to ridings currently held by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, beginning Wednesday with an automotive sector announcement in Niagara Falls, Ont.

"It's time to get good-paying, auto manufacturing jobs back to these communities," Mulcair said, in the warehouse of Spencer ARL, an automotive logistics company that supplies General Motors.

On Harper's watch, Canada's previous automotive trade surplus has turned into a $19-billion deficit, the NDP leader said, and new investments evaporated.

"Canada failed to attract a single dollar. Not one. Zero," he said, pledging that if elected, his party will champion the renewal of the automotive sector if it forms government after the Oct. 19 federal election.

At the moment, automotive manufacturers have difficulty accessing federal government funding that was supposed to foster innovation, Mulcair said, pledging to fix that, with a particular focus on environmental technologies for the sector.

"Clearly Mr. Harper has his foot on the brake when we should be in the fast lane," he said. "We need to do better." 

The NDP leader also said he'd convene a meeting of provinces and other stakeholders within the first 100 days of an NDP government to set priorities and co-ordinate strategy.

New Democrats are pledging to:

  • Improve financial incentives for manufacturers to create new jobs, including making contributions provided under the Automotive Innovation Fund tax-free and doubling the funds available through the Automotive Supplier Innovation Program.
  • Make it easier for potential employers to set up shop and deal with the federal government through a new federal-provincial agency, ICanada, that would improve access to programs and offers other support services.
  • Support research and innovation in the sector, including renewing funding for Windsor-based national automotive research network AUTO21, which is winding down after its federal funding was not renewed.

Harper defends funding commercial R&D

The Niagara Falls riding is currently held by veteran cabinet minister Rob Nicholson, but the NDP is targeting blue-collar seats in southwestern Ontario for gains in this fall's campaign. This is Mulcair's second visit to Niagara Falls, specifically, in a region where New Democrats hold seats provincially.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was campaigning in nearby Welland, Ont., alongside Nicholson in the neighbouring Niagara Centre riding, which is currently held by the NDP.

"We now have the lowest tax rate on new business investment in the major developed economies. That is something, under this government, we are committed to keeping," Harper said.

He defended his government's approach to research incentives for manufacturers.

"It is true governments have been putting a lot of money into research and development but very little money, historically, was oriented to commercialization. To the market place," he said. "We're not just making investments in basic and excellence in academic research, but all the way on the chain through to deployment of innovation in the marketplace. I think it is the right course."

In a statement, Liberal candidate John McCallum panned the New Democrats' auto sector strategy.

"Thomas Mulcair is proposing job killing tax hikes on local business and deep cuts to the economy in order to eliminate the deficit at any cost, just like Harper," the statement said, referring to the NDP's platform pledge to raise the corporate tax rate. "It amounts to a devastating one-two punch that will damage the auto sector and set Canada's already struggling economy even further behind."

Sharpens attack on Trudeau

As the fight for Ontario seats heats up, New Democrats are sharpening their attack on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, using a speech to a rally in Toronto Tuesday evening to court non-Conservative voters unsure where to place their vote.

Mulcair accused Trudeau of saying one thing and then doing another on recent controversial anti-terrorism legislation.  Trudeau voted along with the Conservative government to pass C-51, but is now promising to make changes if a Liberal government is elected.

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NDP supporters snap selfies with NDP Leader Tom Mulcair during a rally in downtown Toronto on Tuesday evening. Mulcair is sharpening his attack on Justin Trudeau, telling the rally the Liberal leader abandoned his principles in supporting anti-terrorism legislation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"How can Canadians trust a person who so easily abandons one principle for another?" Mulcair told the room of supporters.

Mulcair also accused Trudeau of flip-flopping on balancing the books and voting for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and then campaigning against it.

"The question a lot of Canadians are asking is this: if Justin Trudeau can change so many of his long-standing and firmly-held principles before election day, which ones will he abandon after election day? " Mulcair said. 

During his daily round of questions from reporters, Mulcair was asked about past derogatory statements on social media by his current director of communications. Before starting work with the NDP, Shawn Dearn targeted Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church in several tweets, using words like "misogynist" and "homophobic."

"He has apologized for those views. I guess that's part of the world we'll be living in now, is people in social media have said things over the years," Mulcair told reporters.

"His apology was sincere. He felt very bad about it and I'm more than willing to move on from that," the NDP leader said. "He's a very strong, qualified individual."

Later Wednesday, Mulcair heads to Peterborough, Ont., another riding won by the Conservatives in recent elections but now vacant following the resignation of Dean Del Mastro, who was found guilty and sentenced for Elections Act offences during the 2008 federal campaign. He was released on bail earlier this summer as he appeals his conviction.

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With files from Hannah Thibedeau