The Montreal Economic Institute will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on October, and it is largely due to the leadership of President Michel Kelly-Gagnon. He’s a larger-than-life personality, brilliant, charismatic and has a knack of attracting like-minded people to what is commonly called a public policy ‘think tank’. “This is not an organization designed to boost Montreal, rather our job is to provide research-based recommendations on public policy to governments and policy makers.” The Montreal Economic Institute has grown by 200% since 1998, making the organization a Montreal success story – even if it is somewhat under the radar for many Montrealers.

“Let me tell you what we’re not;” explains Kelly Gagnon. “It’ll help you to understand what we actually do here. Our job is not to boost Montrealer and to attract corporations and professionals to open an office or expand in Montreal. Our mission is to influence people who form public policy. We’re what you’d call a small ‘c’ conservative think tank; making us unique in Montreal and Quebec. Living in a provincial political climate dominated by social democratic parties, we are the only organization working on public policy that is not operating on the left of the political spectrum. We are therefore unique; and we just happen to be located here in Montreal.”

“Let me give you some statistics to illustrate the success of the Montreal Economic Institute. In 1998, we operated with a budget of $15,000. Today we operate with a $3,000,000 annual budget and we have $2.8 million in the bank. In 1998, we had 20 articles a year written about us… today there are 27 articles a day about MEI.”

Michel goes on to credit the Board and the Board Chairs for their support of MEI’s initiatives and growth. “We’ve been fortunate to have had tremendous leadership that has enabled us to raise money, attract really good people to work here, and to raise our profile amongst the decision makers in business and politics. We’ve only had three Chairs, starting with Richard Carter, who ran the National Bank subsidiary IT company. Adrien Pouliot of the family who own COGECO followed, and we now have Hélène Desmarais as our Board Chairperson. They provide valuable advice based on their business successes and intellect; and they have given us the freedom to do what we do best.”

“We do not receive any funding from governments. Our funding is diverse, with our largest single donor responsible for only 6-7% of our operating budget. Not only are our donors broadly based, 45 – 48% of our funding comes from outside Quebec. We’re a truly pan-Canadian organization that has also achieved international recognition for the quality of our work.”

“The Montreal Economic Institute is right of centre, and no one else in our business occupies that position in Quebec.” Michel adds without bravado, but simply stating the fact; “We’re good at what we do.”

Michel cites examples of the work done by MEI. “We studied policing, and discovered that police officers spend 40% of their time doing administrative, or “paper” work. This is not what they’re trained for, and also, we’re paying them way too much for them to be doing administrative tasks. It would be much more efficient to hire more administrative staff at a lower salary; so that we could have our police officers out in the field doing police work.”

“For a long time, we here at the MEI were the lone voices saying that Quebec had to rein in its debt. Again – all three political parties have adopted debt reduction as part of their programs. The current government initiated a major austerity program and now have the benefits of a balanced budget, and even a surplus. Well – those initiatives came from MEI, making presentations to Ministers and Deputy Ministers.”

Warming to the subjects at hand, Michel continues; “When we looked at hospital funding, budgets were created on the previous year’s budget. So when The Jewish General Hospital management and medical staff developed better ways of treating more patients for less money – you could have a really bad situation where they could have their funding reduced because they did a good and efficient job!”

“We argue that hospital budgets should be activity-based. All three provincial political parties have come around to this way of thinking; and have activity-based hospital funding in their platforms.”

“It’s no secret that successive Quebec governments for decades have championed the social democratic government models found in Sweden and Denmark, often referring to the ‘Swedish model’. What they don’t mention – or maybe don’t know – is that the largest hospital in Sweden is run by a for-profit company. It’s important to know that it’s also the best-performing hospital in Sweden in terms of patient care – which is the institution’s mandate. We have to explain that there is a better way – and back that up with real life examples.”

“We used to be outsiders, promoting entrepreneurship. Now, the deputy ministers and policy makers take our calls, come to our presentations and take us seriously.”

“The problems in the public sector are not solved by throwing more money at them – we’ve seen that doesn’t work. Why shouldn’t we expect to have a tip-top infrastructure, better policing and public transit? We can do better. To achieve ‘better’, the general public has to demand it from governments.”

I asked Michel how he developed his line of thinking. “As a young man I had always been attracted to an individualist´s view of life. But apart from some readings – in particular, Ayn Rand’s novels and pamphlets by Frederick Bastiat – I had no access to a body of literature that defended this point of view. It was totally absent in Quebec’s media. I actually discovered free-market economics while doing my university degree in law.

“I can pinpoint with precision the moment when Quebec’s free-market tradition were being taken out of limbo and re-launched in its current form. It happened on a winter evening, in January 1995, at the house of a friend of mine in suburban Montreal. Five people who shared the same libertarian principles met as a group for the first time. Four of us were young men in our 20s. The other one was Pierre Lemieux, probably the best-known Quebec defender of freedom abroad, who had tried to keep the flame alive in a rather isolated fashion for the previous twenty years.

“All four of us would not only become my friends, but in some cases, become close colleagues in years that followed. We discussed various ways we could spread free-market ideas.

The friends continued to meet on a monthly basis to discuss how they could promote free-market ideas. Progress was slow, and they realized that they would have to set up an organization that could attract the attention of mainstream media.

“In the mid 90s, I owned a training company and I had a project in Washington, DC. I was able to see the eco-system of think tanks, and the importance of their influence on public policy.”

“This is why in 1998, I accepted the challenge of trying to re-launch the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), a think tank that had been set up in July 1987 by Mr. Lemieux and some of his business people, but had never managed to raise any funds nor publish much. In essence, MEI was an empty shell, with only a few thousand dollars in the bank. I started its initial operations in the mezzanine of my condominium.

“By the end of the year 2000 however, our budget had already surpassed $600,000. We had a secretary, an in-house economist, Martin Masse, my friend from Le Québécois Libre, had joined us as director of publications, and I had also hired someone to take care of communications and events. During that year, we also managed to issue twelve publications. Soon after, Pierre Desrochers, another member of our “Fab Four” group in 1995 who had recently finished his Ph.D., became our director of research. By the middle of the decade, we had a dozen employees, an annual budget close to $1.5 million, and had become one of the main players in Quebec’s public policy debates.”

“We also put a lot of emphasis on clarity, brevity and visual attractiveness. Whether you like it or not, most people, including journalists, don’t have time to read 50-page study and are likely to get bored with dry and complicated prose. The publication format that became our trademark was a four-page, easy to read and concise “Economic Note,” containing some graphs and illustrations. After devoting 15 minutes to reading this, you understood the most important points of any public policy issue.”

The Montreal Economic Institute has earned an admirable reputation as a free-market think tank in Quebec, Canada and Internationally. Doors to the corridors of political power open quickly to MEI. Under the leadership of Michel Kelly-Gagnon (who also worked for a few years as president of Quebec’s Conseil du Patronat) and a talented team of researchers and communications professionals, MEI has become a remarkable Montreal Success Story.

For more information about MEI, please visit their informative web site: www.iedm.org