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What many readers may not know is that in addition to being Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper is enrolled in the College of Rhetoric, Drama and Theoretical Evidence, a small and rather expensive private educational institution in Calgary, which offers a wide range of distance learning courses.

I have had the privilege of being Stephen’s professor for one of his courses, Creative Writing 101, and he has submitted to me, for assessment, his most recent essay, which is worth up to 39% of this semester’s marks.

It’s entitled “Why I’d Like to be Prime Minister Again.”

This essay was used in the rhetorical announcement of the election campaign, read out to the public on August 2nd.

Here is Stephen’s fictional (although very realistic-sounding) 750 word essay; my comments are interpolated among the italicized lines of his piece.


“Why I’d Like to be Prime Minister Again

By Stephen Harper

Good Morning.

Plus one point for correctly identifying the general time of day.

A few minutes ago, I met with his excellency, the Governor General, and he has agreed to my request that Parliament be dissolved.

Plus one point for unquestioned accuracy. You would have been there, and this, by all accounts, is exactly what would have happened

In accordance with our commitment to a fixed election date, the next general election will be held as prescribed by law.

Sorry, this won’t work. Minus two points for a) making it sound like this is Canada’s “law,” when, according to your previous essays, it’s really a new Conservative law you decided to put in place, and b) then breaking the spirit of your law by starting the campaign 39 days earlier than necessary, which would more than double the total cost of the election to taxpayers.

As it is my intention to begin campaign-related activities, as is also the case for the other party leaders, it is important that these campaigns be funded by the parties themselves rather than taxpayers.

Minus one and a half points for inaccurate content – in effect, saying you’re a big fan of parties funding campaigns, despite the fact that you’ve been seen repeatedly promoting student campaign freebies with public funds – even allowing your friend and fellow student Pierre Poilièvre to wear a Conservative Party golf shirt when presenting your “government” goodies.

It is also appropriate that Canadians have the time to consider the alternatives before them, because this is an election about leadership on the big issues, the issues that affect us all: our economy, and our nation’s security.

Minus three more points for: a) believing that Canadians need an election campaign of record-breaking length to understand what’s going on; b) insisting that these two are the only issues that face Canadians; and c) by corollary, ignoring some rather persistent problems that everyone else accepts - things like global climate change, the radical fall in oil prices and the current recession. You must learn to be more comprehensive in your thinking about what a Prime Minister actually does.

It is an election about who will protect our economy, in a period of ongoing global instability, and secure Canada’s future prosperity.

Plus two points for a) identifying that it is indeed a person or persons who will do these things, and b) for realizing that there is some global instability, and that Canada will be affected by it.

And it is an election about who is best-equipped to make the tough calls to keep our country safe.

Plus one point for reaffirming that we’re going into an election. Minus one point for using the word “safe” without saying safe from what, as in “safe from giant toads…safe from aliens….safe from gun-toting US policemen….”

A national election is not a popularity contest.

Oh my. Minus two points for getting it dead wrong: an election is a popularity contest (“pop·u·lar·i·ty: noun: the state or condition of being liked, admired, or supported by many people”). But plus one point for recognizing, at least in this essay, that the upcoming election is for the entire country, not just for the people who would support your party.

On October 19th, Canadians will make a serious choice, between proven, real-world experience and a dangerous approach that has failed before and is failing in other countries.

Dear dear. Such a large number of suppositions, Stephen, without much backup detail. Minus three points for a) use of inflammatory words (“dangerous” and “failed” and “failing”), b) suggesting proof where there is none, and c) use of tedious generalizations. I hope that this is just a momentary aberration on your part.

Today, as Canadians know, the global economy remains uncertain and unstable.

There you go again. Using specific terms without any explanation. I know you’re trying to impress me, and impact an imaginary reader, but unless you give more concrete detail, you’re going to be faced with some significant homework. Minus one and a half points.

The debt crisis in Europe continues to unfold.

Plus one point for accuracy. Minus one point for lack of clear relevance.

China is experiencing a significant economic downturn.

I’ll give you plus one point for this one, because there is some relevance here to Canada’s future, especially given your efforts, in your International Trade Principles 101 studies, to shift our exports away from the US and towards China. And your sentence is nicely succinct.

Economic recovery in the U.S. continues to be slower than anticipated.

Minus one point for factual inaccuracy. There is no economic recovery in the US. It’s like when Joe Oliver says there’s no recession, when there really is. Getting facts straight is important, Stephen. It’s a useful lesson for life, not just for essay writing.

These events abroad are once again impacting us here at home.

I won’t take any points off for this one, but you’re drifting off into generalities again, without any substantiation or indication of relevancy. I’ve warned you about this already, Stephen.

Canada has continued to perform well compared to other G7 countries, but we cannot forget our focus or lose our course.

Sorry, Stephen, minus one point for factual inaccuracy – we’re generally recognized to be middle of the pack at best, and currently heading into a bit of a hard time. I know you’re trying to make a point, but that’s not an excuse for saying things that aren’t true.

Managing our economy remains our government’s top priority.

This is all well and good, Stephen, but I’m just worried about the way you’ve put this. Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a really sound idea. Remember when you wrote that essay on making Canada an “energy superpower”?

That didn’t go over so well when the actual price of oil went down, simply because you never had a Plan B. Thinking about one thing to the exclusion of others doesn’t work very well in today’s interconnected world. Here’s an example: just a few days ago you were in Kelowna, and we heard you finally say it was “possible” that global warming was affecting forest fires.

Well, fighting forest fires costs a lot of money – and that affects the economy, see? You’ve got to learn to think holistically when you talk about issues – you can’t just see the economy in isolation. Look, I know you get anxious around people who call themselves “Liberal,” but remember when your Governance 101 prof Paul Martin said a good economist had to be a good environmentalist, and vice versa?

And I’m sure you’ve read Bill McKibben’s piece in the Rolling Stone about the “terrifying math of climate change”?

I'm going to have to ask you to write out 50 times: “I shouldn’t just concentrate on the economy without thinking about other stuff that affects it.” I think that will help you understand better. One point off (I’m being truly generous here) for inappropriately narrow argumentation.

Our choices have been prudent and our actions have been disciplined.

You know you’re right in your own way, Stephen, but the problem here is that you think “discipline” means making everyone say the same thing at the same time (no matter what it is).

Like getting all your fellow classmates to pretend they were MPs and recite stuff about some policy or other in unison.

But that’s not the kind of discipline that really matters; that’s just discipline like in the army. You need more discipline in thinking about stuff you don’t like to think about – like renewable energy, for example — to get us out of the unstable economic mess we’re in. Minus one point for picking the wrong meaning of a word.

As a result, our economy and our employment have grown steadily over six years.

I appreciate your enthusiasm for your subject matter, Stephen, but you can’t just make statements like that, without some kind of evidence. The evidence you should have looked at says that this really isn’t what has happened; in fact, your prof in Economics 101 says you haven’t been doing a very good job in making up projections and plans in comparison to other historical prime ministers!

So this means minus two points, because I’ve warned you about this before, and you haven’t been paying attention. I may have to add a homework assignment on fact-checking

Our budget is balanced.

Now this is a tricky one. Technically you did balance the budget, at least on paper. But not really by the actual standards of gross debt versus net debt. And you know you did it by selling off those GM shares early, pinching money from Employment Insurance funds, and grabbing a couple of billion out of your rainy day fund.

Your Economics 101 prof would be mortified! So I think you’re going to have to go minus one point on this one, for stretching the truth to make a point.

Our social programs have been preserved.

Well…. I’ll leave this as is for now. But the last comment above suggests you’re treading a bit of a fine line here.

And we have lowered taxes for hard-working Canadians, and delivered significant new benefits directly to Canadian families.

Well here we go again, Stephen. You’re saying something that is technically true, but, well, let’s just say it’s … incomplete. Yes, you lowered personal taxes, GST, corporate taxes, etc, and gave out all sorts of credits and exemptions – but let’s face it, you also lowered your revenues by doing so, and you ran a big deficit right up to this year (and we talked about your so-called “balanced budget” earlier).

Your Economics 101 prof told you this wouldn’t fly, but you just didn’t listen. So minus two points this time, for stubbornly sticking to a line that just doesn’t measure up.

Now is not the time for the kinds of hazardous economic schemes that are doing so much damage elsewhere in the world.

See the problem I talked about earlier – using inflammatory language while not explaining what you mean. Minus two points for repeat errors.

Now is most certainly not the time for higher taxes, reckless spending and permanent deficits.

More inflammatory language, generalizations and a lack of evidence. Minus three points – and we’re going to have to have a chat after school tomorrow.

Now is the time to stay on track.

Empty rhetoric. Minus one point.

Now is the time to stick to our plan.

Simple repetition of the previous line, in different words.

This election is also about our security, not merely our security against the normal risks of criminal behaviour, but our security against the growing threats of an increasingly dangerous world.

More of that inflammatory language – “increasingly dangerous” is strong phraseology, unless you have shown that it’s true, which you haven’t. Minus one point.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State in the Middle East has done more than just create an urgent and horrific crisis in that part of the world.

It has also fuelled the violent, global jihadist movement that poses a direct threat to our friends and allies, and to us here at home.

Jihadi terrorists have declared war on Canada and Canadians by name, and last October violent attacks were carried out on our soil.

I’m going to group these last three sentences together, Stephen, because they’re all about the same idea. Again, inflammatory language, lack of evidence etc.

I decided to do a little fact-checking myself, before I chided you too much, but I’m afraid it confirmed my suspicions. Crime rates in Canada have been going down for years, and murders with them. Moreover, domestic murders outnumber terrorist murders by a vast amount; there were 516 murders in Canada last year, but only two deaths were related to “terrorism” and one of those, the killing of Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa, has been attributed to a man with major drug and mental health problems.

Now it's sad but true that a few teenagers and other young people have gone to Syria and Iraq and joined ISIS, but that’s not much of a “direct threat” to Canada, is it? And looking back in history, what about the FLQ crisis and the RCMP’s “dirty tricks” back in the 1970s?

That was more of a real direct threat to Canada – but that was decades ago! Seems like you’re trying to make something out of nothing – and your favourite Bill C-51 doesn’t really make that much sense either, in light of what I’ve found out. Minus three points.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing military aggression continues to threaten the peace and stability won at great price by previous generations.

Same inflammatory problem as the “Islamist jihadist” issue above. Do I detect a pattern of exaggeration and hawkish fear-mongering on foreign policy issues here? Minus two points.

Our government has taken decisive action in response to these threats.

We’ve strengthened our legislation to give our security and law enforcement agencies the modern tools necessary to keep us safe.

We are part of the broad international military coalition, led by President Obama, against the Islamic State.

Day in and day out, the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces do us proud by taking the fight to the terrorists who seek to harm us.

And our government has been out front in the world’s response against Russian aggression and for the right of peaceful and democratic countries, like Ukraine, to choose their own future.

Once again, I’ve lumped these parts of your essay together because they’re similar in tone. I think they raise an interesting question. Is it the people you’ve called “terrorists” or the acts of “Russian aggression” that are the problem? Or is it your own behaviour?

I know this sounds a bit personal for a professor, but I’ve been following your behaviour on campus, and you’ve been pretty aggressive yourself in what you’ve said and what you’ve done about these people in faraway countries.

For one thing, you helped sell an "unprecedented" $14.8-billion worth of weapons to a government notorious for human rights abuses, namely Saudi Arabia.

For another, you’ve been over the top on this “jihadist” language too.

And Bill C-51 – well, I wish you’d attended more of your History 101 classes, because then you’d understand why everyone is so upset about it. For exaggerated, unsubstantiated comments, minus three points.

I am proud that, today, Canada takes stands in the world in defence of freedom, peace, and human dignity.

Nice phrasing, Stephen. Plus one point for language. I’m not quite sure how you got here from what’s gone before, but it’s nice phrasing nonetheless.

Now is not the time for political correctness, inexperienced governance or an ideological unwillingness to act.

More facts, less rhetorical flourish. Minus 2 points.

Now is the time to face those who threaten us with moral clarity, strength, and resolve.

Always a good thing to do, although I’m not so sure that the moral clarity you’re talking about is so readily obvious in the rest of your essay.

But the turn of phrase reminds me (favourably) of those Karate Kid movies with Pat Morita as the wise counselor. Plus one point.

We Canadians are truly blessed to live in the best country in the world.

Now this is a bit partisan, and as I’m a Canadian too, I’m susceptible to this kind of thinking.

However I can say there is also some objective evidence that this is so— although funnily enough, Canadians aren’t very good at voting. Perhaps we need to ways of increasing the voter turnout. I’m sure you’ll agree! (Your prof in Elections 101 might be able to offer some ideas.). Plus 2 points for this.

In less than two years we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada’s birth as a united country.

Now this is what’s called a non sequitur. I hope you’re going somewhere with this.

But before this significant moment in our history, Canadians will make a critical decision about the direction of our country.

It’s still a non sequitur. I’m afraid it’s minus one point for these two lines.

— A decision

— with real consequences,

— a decision about who

— has the proven experience today

— to keep our economy strong

— and our country safe.

I’ve never really liked this device of spreading phrases out for dramatic emphasis – it always risks seeming somewhat overdone. Minus ½ point.

I will be asking Canadians for their support to continue to deliver sound economic management, and to take the difficult decisions necessary to protect our country’s security.

Repetitious, and overall I’m not sure it adds much to your main thrust, but it does have some stylistic merit, as it rounds things off. Plus ½ point for literary effect.

Over the coming weeks I look forward to meeting Canadians from coast to coast to coast as we lay out the next steps in our plan.

I’m not sure why you’ve added this at the end, as the previous sentence seemed to summarize the points in your essay. And going on a speaking tour over such a modest literary piece seems a trifle presumptuous.

Moreover, I’ve heard that you’ve been planning to go on tour even before this essay was completed, and – as a point of simple fact – I’ve also heard that you’re planning on being very selective about who you meet on tour. Frankly I’m really not sure how this will turn out.

Final comments: All in all, while this essay has some nice turns of phrase, and several solid points of information, overall it contains too many unsubstantiated rhetorical flourishes designed to excite or alarm the reader, without adequate documentation. In some key places – discussing the economy and threats from outside the country – you’ve made statements that actually go directly against the general weight of evidence.

I think this can be remedied, but it’s going to require a lot of work.

At present, I’m going to refrain from giving this essay a formal numerical score, but I’m afraid I just can’t give it a passing grade as it now stands.

I invite you to revise it along the lines I’ve suggested above, and resubmit it at the end of this semester, say in late October (any time after the 19th will do).

In the meantime, good luck with your studies, and enjoy your summer holidays!

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