WINDSOR, Ont. (CP) -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused Wednesday of the kind of "vote buying" his Conservative party has criticized the Liberals for, as he announced a multimillion-dollar loan to Ford in Ontario's automotive hub just days before an expected federal campaign.
The $80-million federal investment to save a mothballed Ford plant in Windsor was significant because it marked a stark change in attitude toward Ontario, whose premier's pleas for financial aid for the ailing auto and manufacturing sectors have been spurned time and time again in the last year.
Ford's Essex engine plant was closed last year, resulting in the loss of about 900 jobs. Harper said his government's fiscal help will establish a more flexible plant on the site that could better adapt to changing market conditions.
"There is no future in shovelling money into status quo automotive designs and production technologies," Harper said.
"But there is a future in providing support for next generation designs and technologies."
Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said his party has been asking for months for targeted investment in the auto sector but the Harper government has, until now, always said no.
"We know he's not doing it by conviction but only because there is an election," Dion said.
Liberal finance critic John McCallum recalled that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty publicly lectured Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals about the need to cut taxes to shore its economy and suggested Ontario is the last place to invest.
"Mr. Flaherty labelled this a Band-Aid solution and rejected it out of hand, so the wound has been festering all these months since then and today," McCallum said.
"When the voters practically have the ballots in their hands, he slaps a Band Aid on it. It's too little, too late and entirely hypocritical."
Martha Hall Findlay, associate finance critic, went so far as to accuse the prime minister of "pork barrelling and buying votes."
Harper is expected to set a campaign in motion as early as the weekend, returning election weary voters to the polls on Oct. 14.
McCallum scoffed at the "ridiculous" Tory assertion that Harper has the goods to steer Canada through rocky economic waters. He pointed out that it's Harper's government that has pushed the country to the brink of a deficit.
"What nerve to say, 'I'm the one that should take charge when we have economic uncertainty' when he . . . has in fact been the instrument of that economic weakness and uncertainty."
Dion, whose party convention in Winnipeg turned into an election strategy session, also took aim at Harper's management of the weakening economy, but not before promoting a fine-tuned version of his Green Shift program -- his party's main election plank.
Harper has adopted a "laissez faire, I don't care" attitude toward economic pressures, Dion said, while telling his caucus a Liberal government would set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to help groups likely to be hard hit by the proposed fossil fuel taxes.
In the first two quarters of 2008, Dion said the economy showed its worst performance since 1991, when another Conservative, Brian Mulroney, was in the Prime Minister's Office.
Flaherty has always insisted that tax cuts, not direct government investments, were the best way to attract investment and create jobs.
But in the shadow of the looming election call, Industry Minister Jim Prentice said Wednesday the government investment will "keep southern Ontario as a major hub of North American automotive excellence, and keep Canada as the best place in the world to build automobiles."
Windsor-area New Democrat MP Brian Masse complained of the thousands of workers who have been thrown out of work during Harper's reign.
Eight hundred workers at tractor-maker Deere & Co. in Welland were told this week their jobs would dry up, and General Motors said in June it was cutting employment for 2,600 workers at a plant in Oshawa, Ont.
Masse said the Ford announcement smacks of political opportunism.
"On the eve of an election, the Harper conservatives decide to make a one-time promise and do what the union has asked for all along," he said.
Harper disagreed that his announcement was in conflict with Flaherty's economic strategy, saying the finance minister himself approved the creation of the Automotive Innovation Fund that will cover the Ford loan.
He also rejected the idea that the recent flood of government spending is vote buying.
"We've been constantly making announcements," he said.
"Everything we're announcing now are programs and budgets that have been approved. This is not money being thrown around on the eve of an election."
Canadian Auto Workers Union president Buzz Hargrove said he was "furious."
He said Harper and his government have "completely ignored the manufacturing sector but now they're calling an election and all of a sudden they want to be seen to be doing something."
"One can't help but be cynical," he added, "but we'll take anything we can get right now to save one job."