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Couillard wants to work with Ottawa

Couillard wants to work with OttawaQuebec Premier Philippe Couillard speaks at a news conference following his first cabinet meeting, Thursday, April 24, 2014 at his office in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

QUEBEC - Quebec's new Liberal premier promised Thursday to work closely with other provinces and the federal government while at the same time defending his own province's interests.

Philippe Couillard said he intended to take that message to a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper later in the day.

"We want to work together with our fellow Canadians in growing the economy and creating jobs but also we're going to assume our full responsibility of defending and promoting Quebec's interests in the federation," the premier said.

"Any changes in Canada's institutions (must) reflect the specific needs of Quebec, the weight we have to maintain in the country and the representation we have to keep in the country."

A spokesman for Harper said the two men met for 50 minutes and described the discussion as "cordial."

Carl Vallee said Harper indicated during the get-together that his government intends to work closely with Couillard on joint priorities such as the economy and job creation.

They also discussed infrastructure, energy and Couillard's maritime policy, Vallee said.

Couillard mused during the recent election campaign about travelling to the rest of the country to discuss the idea of eventually holding talks aimed at getting Quebec to sign the Constitution.

After being accused by his political rivals of wanting that signature at any cost, Couillard backtracked and said there was little appetite at the moment for constitutional negotiations.

He also made it clear the initiative would have to come from English Canada.

The election of Couillard's majority government will likely result in improved relations between Quebec and Ottawa after the strained ties the federal government had with the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois.

Harper and Couillard share a focus on the economy, a topic that dominated most of the premier's first news conference since he was sworn in on Wednesday.

He gave Quebecers some bad news, telling them the province's deficit for the most recent fiscal year was $600 million more than projected.

He said the 2013-14 deficit clocked in at more than $3.1 billion instead of the $2.5 billion mentioned by the Parti Quebecois before the recent election.

In a bid to improve public finances, Couillard announced the government will strive to reduce administrative costs as well as imposing a hiring freeze in the public sector.

There will also be cuts to overtime and travel.

Couillard is still aiming to meet the previous PQ government's objective of a $1.75-billion deficit in 2014-15 and a balanced budget the following year.

He said a lot of discipline will be required to meet those objectives.

"It's going to be tough but we're going to do it. We owe it to the next generation."

The national assembly will reconvene on May 20 and Finance Minister Carlos Leitao will table a budget in June.

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