TORONTO -- Ontario must remain eligible for equalization payments from the federal government because it risks becoming a have-not province if economic conditions worsen, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Monday.

"I'm concerned that the feds are going to say that Ontario is to be cut out -- they'll never be permitted to keep more of their own money," McGuinty said as he renewed his call for more funding for the province by launching an online petition.

"I'm concerned there is an institutionalized philosophy in Ottawa that says Ontario shall never benefit from equalization."

McGuinty has been pressing the federal government for fairer treatment, saying Ontario gets shortchanged by billions of dollars a year.

On Monday, he also asked party leaders for their positions on the so-called "fairness" issue -- the fact that Ontario sends $20 billion more to Ottawa to help other provinces than it receives -- and promised to make the responses public before voters head to the polls next month.

He wants a commitment the leaders won't make changes that could exclude Ontario from receiving equalization payments.

Some economists have predicted the province could fall into have-not status in two years, as job losses in the key manufacturing sector continue to mount amid high oil prices, a high dollar and a slowing U.S. economy, McGuinty said.

"If you are Canada's manufacturing heartland -- and we are -- and if manufacturing is taking a hard hit everywhere in North America -- and it is -- and if other provinces are getting richer because of higher oil prices -- and they are -- then they are going to get richer faster than we are," McGuinty said during a speech to business leaders at the Economic Club of Canada.

"That's how we could qualify for equalization."

He also launched the petition at that urges Ontario residents to use it to pressure federal candidates.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday the federal Conservative government had already updated its arrangement in recent years to deal with the fiscal imbalance, noting Ontario was "a huge beneficiary" of that plan.

"I know it did not give Premier McGuinty everything he was looking for, but transfers to the province of Ontario have increased substantially," Harper said in Ottawa.

The government will be announcing "a number of measures" in its campaign to help deal with economic problems, specifically in Ontario, he said, adding he expects those plans to address some of McGuinty's concerns.

"But let me be clear on this: Our objective as a government is to keep Ontario as the industrial engine of our economy," Harper said.

"It is not to see Ontario become a have-not, equalization-receiving province, and I hope the government of Ontario shares that objective."

Critics called McGuinty's announcement a public relations stunt, with interim Opposition Leader Bob Runciman charging that much of the blame for the province's struggling economy falls squarely on the provincial government.

"People right across the province are worried about their futures, their kids' futures, their savings," Runciman said during the first question period of the legislature's fall session. "They want meaningful and effective action, not more of the blame-game stunts.

"There are things he can do at the provincial level, but he has been effectively in denial about the failure of his own government's economic strategies."

New Democrat Leader Howard Hampton called McGuinty's latest plea "another strategy for deflection, diversion and distraction from the real issue."

"Manufacturing jobs are being lost in Ontario, and the McGuinty government has no strategy, no plan to address that, other than for looking for someone else, anyone else, to blame," Hampton said.

But Finance Minister Dwight Duncan defended the petition, saying McGuinty has a plan, even if his tactics are more subdued than those of some of his peers.

"This premier is not a premier who's going to take down the Canadian flag off of the front of the legislature," Duncan said, referring to the time Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams lowered the Maple Leaf during a squabble with the then-Liberal government over federal transfers.

"He's got a number of proposals that we think are prudent."