LAVAL, Que. — It's a campaign promise of a different sort: Stephen Harper says he won't let his marathon ballot battle keep Canada out of a massive international partnership billed as the backbone of future global trade in the Pacific Rim.
Talks to establish the long-promised 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership will continue and Canada will be there, Harper promised — notwithstanding the protracted 11-week election campaign triggered by the prime minister himself.
The partnership, "should it be concluded, will in our view form the fundamental trading network of the entire Asia-Pacific region," he said during a campaign stop in Laval, Que., north of Montreal.
"It is important that Canada remain at the table; we will remain at the table during this election campaign ... and we will make sure that should there be a deal, we will get the best possible deal for this country."
New Zealand officials told The Canadian Press last week that the talks likely wouldn't wait until after the campaign — a sentiment echoed in media reports Monday by John Key, Harper's New Zealand counterpart.
Taking questions on the first full day of the campaign, Harper said negotiators would continue to defend Canadian interests, notably the country's supply management system, which protects dairy producers.
Officials say last week's talks in Hawaii came close to reaching a deal — indeed, sources said the Conservatives were hoping to make an agreement a central feature of the party's campaign kickoff on Sunday.
Canada had offered to allow more dairy imports, but the offers were far from what New Zealand and Australia were asking for, officials said. Dairy-market access was one of several sticking points at the 12-country negotiations.
The Canadian economy remained a central theme of the Tory tour Monday.
At a factory in Laval, Harper unveiled his party's first campaign promise: a Conservative government, he said, would allocate $60 million a year on increased and extended tax credits for businesses that hire would-be tradespeople.
The apprenticeship tax credit, he said, would help to deal with Canada's long-standing skilled labour shortage.
The Conservatives would increase the maximum credit, first introduced in 2006, to $2,500 from $2,000, and also extend it to the third and fourth years of eligible apprenticeship training. The measure would deplete public coffers by $60 million a year, starting in 2016.
The economy as a whole, however, has struggled this year — it contracted over the first five months to the point some believe it was in recession.
During his news conference, at which journalists are limited to five questions with no opportunities for follow-up queries, Harper faced several queries about the state of the Canadian economy.
He was asked where he saw the country's new economic growth coming from, given how household debt has been climbing, the energy sector has stumbled amid low oil prices and manufacturers haven't picked up the slack.
Harper blamed the economy's ills on "temporary" factors outside Canada's borders and beyond its control — slow growth in the U.S. and problems in Europe and China.
He insisted the Tory plan of lower taxes, belt-tightening and striving for budgetary balance is working.
"That's what we're doing, that's what all the analysts — credible analysts — in the world think we should be doing and now is not the time to get off that track," Harper said.
"Prospects for growth across the Canadian economy — you talk to the manufacturing sector, they're very positive. Analysts are predicting good growth for this economy into the future as long as we stay on track."
The stop in Laval was Harper's second in Quebec since the campaign began, following his kick-off rally Sunday in Montreal.
On Monday, he once again urged Quebecers to support the Tories as a way to ensure they would have influence in Ottawa.
Harper warned against the risk of electing another batch of opposition MPs — and took particular aim at Thomas Mulcair's NDP, which holds more than 50 seats in the province.
"This group of NDP MPs, during the last four years, are the most ineffective group of any group of MPs in history," said Harper. "There's not a single star among Mulcair's caucus in Quebec."
That remark followed the pitch he made Sunday night to nationalists in Quebec, where his party only won five seats in 2011.
"For us Conservatives, Quebec nationalism — nationalism that does not lead to the impasse of separation — is not a threat," Harper told the Montreal rally.
"It is the expression of a deep pride in our past and a solid trust in our future. And I ask you that in the next election to put this nationalism, this solidarity, at the service of a stronger Quebec at the heart of a government that's solid, stable, national, majority and Conservative."
Harper was scheduled to pay a visit to Kingston, Ont., later Monday, followed by an evening rally at a golf course in Ajax, east of Toronto — the former riding of his longtime finance minister, Jim Flaherty.
But things didn't go smoothly. Mechanical problems with one of the Conservative campaign buses forced party staffers and journalists to switch vehicles in Laval before resuming the trip to Kingston.
Perhaps in a not-so-subtle counterpoint to the Conservative decision to rally in a Liberal garrison on Sunday night, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was scheduled to make an appearance Monday in Calgary, Harper's longtime stronghold.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has no public events scheduled.
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