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Oliver concerned provinces and allies take focus off cutting deficits, debt

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MONTREAL - Finance Minister Joe Oliver says he's concerned that provincial governments and Canada's global allies will undermine the economy and reverse five years of gains if they relax their efforts to cut budgetary deficits and debts.

He reminded an international economic conference on Monday that the Canadian government has projected a $6-billion surplus in 2015-2016, but said the average budgetary deficit among G7 countries is 5.9 per cent of gross domestic product.

Oliver applauded the newly elected Quebec government for having a restraint budget and called on Ontario politicians — who are campaigning ahead of a June 12 provincial election — to make a similar move.

Ontario's Progressive Conservatives are promising deep cuts in public sector jobs if elected, but Oliver says he's not trying to intervene in Thursday's vote.

"No matter which party wins the election, I will encourage the new government to make a serious commitment to growth and a balanced budget," Oliver said Monday.

Oliver later told reporters that facts need to be recognized: "Canada cannot arrive at its potential if the biggest province remains in difficulty."

He said the eventual rise in interest rates and potential downgrades by credit rating agencies will cause debt payment costs to balloon.

"These are inescapable mathematical calculations. It's about arithmetic."

The federal finance minister said he is not concerned that fiscal restraint by Ontario and Quebec — Canada's two most populous provinces — will provoke a national economic slowdown, saying "acting responsibly" won't be a drag.

Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard — whose Liberals defeated the Parti Quebecois in April — later told the gathering that his province was once again "open for business" and vowed to get its fiscal house in order.

Shunning the word austerity, Couillard said there's nothing extraordinary about "fiscal discipline," saying it is something families do all the time when spending is out of whack with income.

"I don't think it is extraordinary to talk about the fact that we have to live within our means," Couillard told reporters. "If we continue digging deeper in debt, overtaxing people we'll not help the economy, we'll not help job creation and particularly we will threaten directly our social programs."

Oliver said he's optimistic that weak Canadian exports and stagnant capital investments will recover.

He said the global economy is at a "pivotal moment" in which the recovery remains weak and the outlook is uncertain.

Oliver said it is essential in uncertain times for governments to achieve a solid fiscal grounding by focusing on "strong, sustainable and balanced growth."

The G20 countries will discuss this fall, Canada's proposal to increase the GDP of the member countries by two per cent above current trends, a "game-changer" that would add $2 trillion to the global economy.

The former natural resources minister used the meeting to pitch to more than 3,000 delegates the large oil and natural gas reserves in Western Canada _ 168 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 37 trillion cubic metres of natural gas _ that can be exported to Europe and Asia, if Canadian pipelines are built.

He said the resource sector accounts for 18 per cent of the Canadian economy, contributing two million jobs and $30 billion in government revenues. But the oil is landlocked, causing Canadian oil to sell at a discount to the world price, costing the economy $30 billion.

"Canadians need to understand the consequences of not moving our resources to tidewater," he said, accusing opponents including opposition political parties of making up their minds before regulators provide "objective recommendations."

"So the choice is stark. Head down the path of economic decline, higher unemployment, limited funds for social programs like health care, continuing deficits and growing debt or achieve prosperity and security now and for future generations through the responsible development of our resources."

However, Oliver declined to say if the cabinet will soon approve the Northern Gateway project that would allow oil to be exported from British Columbia to Asian markets.

Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter

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