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Couillard looks to political rookies to give Quebec cabinet fresh start

Quebec's Premier Philippe Couillard (C) gives a thumbs up after posing for a picture with his new cabinet during a swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly in Quebec City

Quebec faces hard times that will require difficult decisions to remedy a huge debt, uncontrolled spending and a heavy tax burden, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says, a dire warning he unleashed during the swearing-in of the newly elected Liberal government.

"We need to act with force, courage and determination to remedy a situation that threatens the quality of life of current and future generations," Mr. Couillard in his first major speech as Premier. "The time is no longer for marginal and cosmetic measures. The time for difficult decisions has arrived."

Those decisions are in the hands of the core economic team, a group of political novices.

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"The ship is at the dock, the journey will be difficult but I know we will arrive at our destination," Mr. Couillard told the newly appointed ministers.

The economic trio includes Carlos Leitao, an economist and former banker, as Finance Minister. Martin Coiteux, another economist, was named President of the Treasury Board, and Jacques Daoust, former head of the government's venture capital body, Investissement Québec, was appointed Minister of the Economy, Innovation and Exports.

All three can draw on experience in the private sector as they attempt to boost the Quebec economy, increase jobs and revenues and rein in provincial finances.

The PQ government budget tabled in February estimated the deficit as of March 31 at $2.5-billion. It was projected to drop to $1.75-billion by the end of 2014-2015 with a return to a balanced budget at the end of the 2015-16.

Mr. Couillard promised not to sacrifice social justice in the name of austerity. "On the North American continent, our society distinguishes itself by its fairness. We need to protect what we have," Mr. Couillard said.

He signalled a break from the former Liberal regime by putting several new faces in key portfolios, promising an "open and transparent" government with integrity as a guiding force. The Liberals are still struggling with the effects of testimony at the Charbonneau commission into corruption that the party under his predecessor, Jean Charest, was involved in collusion and favouritism.

In a surprising move, Mr. Couillard named Sam Hamad as Labour Minister, a role in which he will oversee upcoming contract negotiations in the construction industry. He had been dropped from Mr. Charest's cabinet and then brought back. Mr. Hamad's former employer, Roche engineering, became controversial recently when the anti-corruption police squad raided its offices and the home of one of its senior vice-presidents, long-time Liberal Marc-Yvan Côté, over allegations of illegal party financing.

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A total of 26 ministers were sworn in by Quebec's Lieutenant-Governor Pierre Duchesne, 18 men (excluding Mr. Couillard) and eight women. More than half have no cabinet experience.

Gaétan Barrette, former head of the federation of Quebec medical specialists, was given the Ministry of Health and Social Services. He now must renegotiate the generous pay increases he obtained for doctorswhen he was on the other side of the bargaining table.

Mr. Couillard also indicated he wants to build bridges with the anglophone community and ethnic groups upset by the Parti Québécois' proposed secular charter, which would have banned religious symbols in the public sector. He appointed Kathleen Weil as Immigration Minister with a mandate to ease the tensions.

"You will have the difficult but essential task of healing the wounds of the past months by helping to construct an open and inclusive society that proudly shares an identity based on our language and values," the Premier said.

But several former Charest ministers got important positions. Lise Thériault was named Deputy-Premier and Minister of Public Security, and Jean-Marc Fournier became government House Leader and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs with the task of building alliances with other provinces to defend Quebec interests.

And Pierre Paradis, an outcast during Mr. Charest's nine years in power, now returns to cabinet as Minister of Agriculture after 20 years as a backbencher.

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