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Couillard aims to bring Quebec's spending under control

Quebec Premier designate Philippe Couillard, centre, is greeted by members of the Liberal caucus in Quebec City, Wednesday.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The economy and jobs will be Philippe Couillard's priority as premier, but he says his first order of business will be to tackle the province's finances and ensure social peace.

Liberal candidates, both winners and losers in Monday's election, arrived in Quebec City euphoric over their party's sweeping victory for a final gathering with their leader before he gets down to the task of forming a government from his 70 elected MNAs.

"My first concern will be to take a look at the health of our public finances, have it checked and then govern ourselves accordingly," Mr. Couillard said before receiving cheers and applause from the other Liberals.

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During the campaign, Mr. Couillard promised to slash spending and cut programs if necessary to achieve a balanced budget by the end of 2015-2016. But the Liberal leader said he wanted to avoid creating the kind of unrest that marked the tenure of his Liberal predecessor, Jean Charest.

A coalition of public sector unions warned Mr. Couillard on Wednesday that he will "find them on his path" if he introduces austerity measures that would reduce services and jobs.

But Mr. Couillard insisted his government wants to maintain social peace throughout its mandate.

"I am not looking for confrontation. I want to collaborate with everyone, including unions. I spoke with some of the leaders of the large unions this morning, and I think we established a good contact," he said.

Thursday's Parti Québécois meeting of elected and defeated candidates is expected to be a much more subdued affair. The party is still recovering from Monday's devastating defeat, in which it was reduced to 30 seats.

The PQ caucus will choose an interim leader to replace Pauline Marois. Former deputy premier and veteran party stalwart François Gendron, as well as Stéphane Bédard, Sylvain Gaudeault and Agnès Maltais are among the potential candidates to hold the fort until the leadership vote, the date of which the party is not expected to choose until next fall.

Mr. Couillard said this week that his cabinet will be sworn in right after the Easter break. A new budget will likely be tabled next month after the National Assembly reconvenes for a brief spring session.

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Newly elected member Martin Coiteux, one of the front-runners for the finance portfolio, said that after the books have been examined and spending brought under control, tackling the debt will be the next objective.

"We are committed to using 50 per cent of the prospective surpluses. … And use the other 50 per cent to reduce taxes starting with the health tax," Mr. Coiteux said. "But first, we've got to restart the economy and we have to control expenditures."

The former senior consultant and economist at the Bank of Canada was one of the strongest critics of the PQ minority government's economic platform during the campaign. Mr. Coiteux defended the Liberals as sound fiscal managers, but often had to explain why the province's debt and expenditures increased dramatically during the nine-year Liberal reign before the PQ took power in 2012.

The province's net debt was estimated at $182-billion as of March 31. The net debt represented 49.8 per cent of Quebec's gross domestic product as of March 31, 2013, the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the country.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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