09/14/2011 09:08 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:18 EST

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says she would create a jobs commissioner

ST. THOMAS, Ont. - Ontario needs a jobs commissioner to look for alternatives when large-scale layoffs or plant shutdowns are announced, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday.

The New Democrats would create the commissioner's post if they win the Oct. 6 provincial election, Horwath said as she stood outside a Ford plant in St. Thomas that will close its doors Thursday, putting the last 1,200 employees out of work.

However, neither Horwath nor the Ford workers could say if a jobs commissioner would have saved the St. Thomas plant.

"The answer is we don't know because it doesn't exist," said Horwath.

"We believe that somebody with that responsibility will have an opportunity to perhaps prevent this situation from happening. It's not good enough to say there's nothing we can do, shrug our shoulders and walk away."

Shane McPherson and his wife Allison have both worked at the Talbotville Ford assembly plant for 10 years and say the closure is "devastating" for them and their three young children. McPherson doesn't think a jobs commissioner would have saved their jobs, but was pleased the New Democrats want to tie tax breaks and government incentives for large corporations to iron-clad job guarantees.

"I'm not too sure it would make a difference here because I think Ford had their mind set on closing the plant and there wasn't much that could be said government-wise to do anything," said McPherson.

"It's refreshing to hear that corporate tax breaks could be geared towards employment and hiring of new workers."

The jobs commissioner would be independent of government, said Horwath, and have wide-ranging authority to bring together employers, unions, creditors and others to try and avert layoffs or arrange proper training for workers.

"I think it's a missing piece to the puzzle to maintain our good jobs," she said.

"It's something we believe will work, and it's certainly better than doing nothing, which is what's happening now, and allowing those jobs to walk out of the province."

British Columbia had a jobs commissioner in the late 1990s that was credited with saving 75,000 jobs in the province, said Horwath, so it's worth trying in Ontario.

"It needs to be someone who can sit as an honest broker at the table with all of the diverse parties and as well be able to ask government to come in to play a role," said Horwath.

Campaigning in Ottawa on Wednesday, Premier Dalton McGuinty dismissed Horwath's call for a jobs commissioner, saying it would just add to the bureaucracy at Queen's Park.

"I'm not sure how increasing the size of the public sector, the size of the bureaucracy, is going to help create jobs in the private sector," said McGuinty.

"But here's my real concern: she's talking about $9-billion dollar, crushing, job-killing taxes. That's my concern."

At her own campaign rally in Ottawa later Wednesday, Horwath dismissed McGuinty's criticism about adding to the provincial bureaucracy that companies have to deal with.

"I don't think it's a matter of red tape," she said. "I think it's a matter of rolling up our sleeves, putting another set of eyes and ears and experience and skills into the mix that has a different perspective to try to not only save those companies, but if that's not possible, to save that facility and have a different company operate it."

Horwath also laced her speech in Ottawa with more French than she ever has before, and received strong encouragement from the crowd for her efforts.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak also poured cold water on the idea of a jobs commissioner, saying the NDP would kill jobs with corporate tax increases.

It won't be just the Ford jobs that disappear from St. Thomas, said Horwath, warning that suppliers for the plant will also be forced out of business in a small community that has lost 10,000 jobs in the last five years.

"Times are tough and the future's uncertain," said a grim-faced McPherson.