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Quebec's Premier Philippe Couillard shakes the hand of the Minister of Finance Carlos Leitao after the inaugural speech at the National Assembly in Quebec City, May 21, 2014.

MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

Instead of voicing the ambition of a nation, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard set out to lower the expectations of the state.

After 18 months of a Parti Québécois government under Pauline Marois, the values charter and identity politics, the new Liberal premier laid out a plan for four years dealing with far more workaday concerns.

But between the lines, the no-drama message in his opening speech to the National Assembly on Wednesday still promised watershed change.

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It wasn't because of the lack of tension with Ottawa, though it is remarkable that only two months ago the PQ was headed for a majority government, and now Mr. Couillard is asserting that Quebeckers played a big part in building Canada, and will claim their whole heritage, and "common future."

For a premier who just handed separatists a historic beating, this was noticeably a speech lacking in discussions of Quebec's place in Canada.

But he presented a different image of Quebec, where global-minded, technologically-connected young people are the future, and where people don't expect the state to fix all of society's problems. It was about expecting less of the state.

If that's not explosive, it is remarkable in a place where the 1960s Quiet Revolution was about seizing the levers of the state to change Quebec's culture, and where the PQ portrayed an independent state as crucial to the future.

Mr. Couillard is now just one of many voices calling for a smaller state. But he's in power.

He laid out a case: not only that the public finances are in danger of falling off a cliff, but that the province is poorer because of that, and the tax burden. He argued the size of the state is out of whack: Quebec has 23 per cent of Canada's population, but only 20 per cent of its economy – and yet 27 per cent of the country's provincial spending.

He called for spending control, and bureaucracy cutting, but also an attitude change about what government does.

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Just because there's a need, he said, doesn't mean government should step in. When a government program is created, it doesn't have to be the most generous to meet the test of democracy or solidarity, he argued.

Now, whenever any new program is created, he said, another one of equal cost will have to be cut. He said people create government programs and agencies with the best of intentions, but once there, they just continue to grow bigger and spend more.

Mr. Couillard isn't the first Quebec premier to make a mission of deficit cutting, so did Lucien Bouchard. Jean Charest pledged to cut taxes, too. But Mr. Couillard's argument for changing the structure of the state, and the ways Quebeckers look at it, is broader than that of his predecessors.

There are other members of Quebec's political world embracing a similar idea.

Mr. Couillard may be a fiscal conservative, but he's no neo-con ideologue. Yet his speech wasn't all that different from the one given earlier this week by one of the most ideologically-conservative members of Stephen Harper's government, Maxime Bernier.

Mr. Bernier, too, called for Quebec to embrace its place within Canada, a pluralistic society, a role for the English language rooted in Quebec history – and hard choices to shrink the state in a bid to improve the economy over the long– term.

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The underlying tone of Mr. Couillard's speech – that it's time to accept Quebec's obvious problems with an overgrown state and high taxes – also echoes the message of Francois Legault's Coaliton Avenir Québec, the third party in the National Assembly. Even chunks of the PQ had embraced that idea before the election as the party shifted rightwards.

It's certainly not a universal consensus. The left-leaning Québec Solidaire has grown to solid fourth-party status, and the so-called social democratic wing of the PQ won't love it. But an unusually broad swath of Quebec's political class now seems to agree shrinking government is a must.

For decades, Quebec's chief political debate, the national debate, has revolved around whether government has enough powers to fulfill Quebeckers ambitions. Now, there's a government saying Quebeckers have to ask the state for less. Mr. Couillard's workaday agenda means big change.

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