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Couillard says Quebec shifted on sovereignty

Couillard says Quebec shifted on sovereigntyQuebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard takes the stage after winning the provincial election Monday April 7, 2014 in St-Felicien, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL - Quebec premier-designate Philippe Couillard says he sensed a political shift on the campaign trail in the lead-up to his Liberals' crushing defeat of the pro-independence Parti Quebecois.

But the rookie Liberal captain acknowledges he wasn't so sure the transformation would translate into votes for his federalist party.

Couillard, one of Quebec's most-pro-Canada political leaders in years, received an answer following Monday's vote: a majority Liberal mandate that knocked the PQ from power.

"There was some movement in what I've called the tectonic plates of politics in Quebec," Couillard said Tuesday at his first news conference.

"I really felt during the campaign that the young generation, the youth of Quebec, is not at all attracted by anything that limits us or prevents us from having broader horizons."

The Liberals won 70 of Quebec's 125 seats in the national assembly, compared with 30 for the PQ, 22 for the Coalition party and three for Quebec solidaire.

The PQ loss has been blamed on its cornerstone quest for Quebec independence, an idea a majority of Quebecers oppose.

The drubbing could trigger an internal crisis for the PQ, as it comes to terms with the reality it might have to re-examine its core goal of Quebec independence.

The PQ will also have to search for a new leader as it ponders renewal after Pauline Marois announced her resignation following the defeat.

Couillard recommended Tuesday that some politicians should start making adjustments to their stance on sovereignty.

"A significant change in politics is happening in Quebec and it's not over," he said in Quebec City.

"I think this will carry on in the coming years. So, politicians better be realigning themselves on the new reality."

To help make his point, Couillard highlighted his "unprecedented" win in the riding of Roberval in Quebec's Lac-St-Jean region, an area long known for its support of independence.

"So, there's generational change, there's a regional change, it's going to be quite interesting for you to write about on this in the coming years," he told reporters.

When asked whether he thought the PQ's loss was a death knell for the sovereignty movement, he reiterated his warning from the campaign: "an idea never dies."

"That said, the question I would ask is whether this idea has the capacity to politically mobilize the population and, for example, form a government?" he said.

"I think it's up to the PQ to make that analysis."

The incoming premier said he will likely form his government in about two weeks, with former Liberal premier Daniel Johnson in charge of the transition period.

His early plans include launching infrastructure projects to create jobs, calling on the auditor general to conduct an independent analysis of public finances, re-introducing right-to-die legislation and creating a secularism charter built on consensus.

The PQ tried to run its campaign on the back of its controversial-yet-popular secularism proposal, legislation that divided Quebecers. The plan would have banned public employees from wearing overt religious garb in the workplace.

Couillard, a vocal opponent of the PQ charter, promised his version wouldn't go nearly as far.

"We're not going to do anything — anything — that goes even close to job discrimination," he said.

Couillard, the target of repeated campaign attacks for his party's scandal-plagued past, also said he intends to give Quebecers the most transparent government they've ever had. The political class, he added, is clearly under the microscope.

He promised to divulge information such as expense accounts and the ongoing progress of infrastructure projects.

"On integrity, I'll repeat it: there will be no compromise," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Coalition Leader Francois Legault said the Liberals won the election because of the constant threats of a sovereignty referendum.

Couillard's Liberals stormed to victory, he said, after they focused their campaign on the danger of another referendum in the event of a majority PQ government.

"The omnipresence of a referendum or sovereignty allows the Liberals to win elections without too much effort," Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister who now heads an anti-referendum party, told a news conference in Montreal.

"I don't think it's healthy for one political party to be able, almost automatically, to take power without really proposing anything."

Legault, a champion of the sovereignty movement until he left the PQ a few years ago, said his old party will be forced to ponder its fundamental belief, much like he did.

"I think these people will have to go through the same reflection I did in 2009," he said.

"At a certain moment we can no longer move against the will of the majority of Quebecers. Quebecers don't want a referendum ... I didn't find a solution.

"If the PQ continues to propose — or not exclude — a referendum they will be in trouble. If they stop proposing a referendum, they will be in trouble."

Couillard's majority win will give the PQ several years to rebuild.

The former Charest health minister sent the PQ to one of its worst-ever electoral defeats in a nasty campaign that voters complained didn't focus enough on bread-and-butter issues, like jobs and health care.

Marois called the election on March 5, hoping to win a majority based on a campaign of identity politics anchored in its controversial secularism charter.

But star PQ candidate Pierre Karl Peladeau's campaign launch just a few days later derailed the majority scenario when he delivered an enthusiastic, fist-pumping endorsement of an independent Quebec.

The PQ never recovered even though Marois insisted over and over there would be no referendum until Quebecers wanted one.

In terms of popular support Monday, the Liberals pulled in 41 per cent, a dramatic climb from 31 per cent in 2012. And the PQ finished the night with about 25 per cent, just two percentage points more than the Coalition.

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