OTTAWA - The Conservative government is considering a strong focus on the manufacturing sector in the upcoming budget, part of a general shift in attention towards Ontario and its voters.
Opposition parties say Prime Minister Stephen Harper has ignored the country's industrial heartland in favour of the energy sector in Alberta — a criticism that is likely to come up when the House of Commons returns next week.
NDP industry critic Peggy Nash said the government has said and done little as Heinz, Kellogg's, Unilever and Aveos and others have closed operations in Ontario and Quebec in recent years.
"My question to them, is where have they been for nine years?" Nash said. "They've neglected the manufacturing sector, we've lost hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs.
"Families, communities, have suffered. This seems to me to be pre-election posturing and I just hope it's not too little, too late."
Harper and his ministers have been concentrating much of their energy in Ontario, whose manufacturers and exporters stand to benefit from the sagging loonie.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced $100 million in joint funding for auto parts manufacturer Linamar in Guelph, Ont.
Harper also finally agreed to meet Wynne earlier this month, the first time in more than a year.
"The oil industry isn't remotely the entire Canadian economy," Harper said at an event Thursday in St. Catharines, Ont., as he spoke about plummeting oil prices.
Industry Minister James Moore recently told CBC News that while the government has done much to advance the cause of oil pipelines, it's up to the companies involved to deliver.
That's a different tone than Harper took shortly after he took office, when he told a British audience that Canada was an "energy superpower," and that oilsands development was akin to building the Great Wall of China or the pyramids.
"For international investors, the most important sector story I have to tell is energy," Harper said in another speech later that year.
Senior Conservative sources emphasize that manufacturing has always been on the radar — a two-year extension of the temporary capital cost allowance for equipment and machinery appeared in the 2013 budget. Southern Ontario's auto industry was also given billions in bailout money in late 2008.
But they also suggest that more help for the sector is top of mind as the April budget is being put together. For example, the accelerated capital cost allowance lets companies write-off the cost of machinery more quickly, thereby lowering their tax bill. One option is to make that permanent.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took a direct swipe at the Conservative record on manufacturing during a Liberal caucus retreat earlier this week.
"While Mr. Harper was busy not caring about manufacturing jobs drying up, his finance minister was telling Ontarians they had 'no one to blame but themselves'," Trudeau said in a speech.
Harper specifically referred to manufacturing on Thursday, when he dismissed a suggestion his government should readjust its economic plan in the face of falling oil prices.
The government is already doing plenty to foster economic health, he said, including "cutting red tape, programs to aid the creation of small business and small-business jobs, programs to aid in innovation, programs to ensure the manufacturing sector is strong and growing and revitalized, negotiations to open new markets to trade, and keeping our taxes low."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Nash was NDP finance critic