Monday, December 31, 2012

Comedy Group Air Farce does Stephen Harper "Gangnam Style" parody

The Canadian comedy group Air Farce has produced a parody of the ever-parodied "Gangnam Style" starring Craig Lauzon as Stephen Harper.
The skit will be part of the Air Farce's New Year's Eve special on December 31. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives us the year in review through his version of the South Korean pop song by PSY "Gangnam Style". Some of the references will no doubt be quite foreign to non-Canadians.
The video makes reference to several controversies that dogged the ruling Conservative Party. This includes the over-spending by Bev Oda, the deal for buying F-35 fighters, and budget cuts.
Bev Oda is a former MP and cabinet minister. Oda was appointed Minister for International Cooperation on August 14 2007. After a series of controversies and scandals she resigned her seat in July of 2012 and was dropped from Cabinet.
Besides having a recommendation for funding of a charitable group turned down by having a "not" inserted in a document that recommended funding, and then pretending she did not know who put the "not" in, she was often excoriated for her spending habits. In April 2012, at a conference on the immunization of poor children, Oda refused to stay at the conference hotel furnished by the hosts. Instead she stayed at the Savoy Hotel at a charge of $665 dollars per night for three nights. She also hired a limousine to transport her to the conference. After a huge public outcry, Oda paid some of the expenses herself. She is also famous for her smoking habits, which is why she changed hotels some say. She was charged $250 dollars for smoking in a non-smoking room.
The F-35 controversy has been ongoing. As time passes the costs of the planes has gone far beyond the original ridiculously low projection of the Conservative government. The government originally planned to buy 65 F-35 fighter jets. The costs were estimated in July 2010 at $9 billion. However an audit recently put the actual costs over the lifespan of the planes at $45.8 billion. This has been a huge issue in Canada as the government has kept insisting that the planes were the only ones suitable. There was no tender process. For a summary and some videos see this CBC article.
If you live in Bahrain, Iran, Egypt, or numerous other places please do not attempt to imitate this satirical take on your leader.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tiny Machias Seal Island claimed by both the US and Canada

Machias Seal Island is a tiny rock island 16 kilometres from the coast of the US state of Maine and 19 kilometers south of Grand Manan Island just off the coast of the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The island is claimed by both Canada and the US.
Machias Seal Island has an area of just 8 hectares or about 20 acres. The island is a sanctuary for many seabirds including the Atlantic Puffin seen in the appended video. Visitors from around the world come to view the birds during the summer.
There are no permanent residents of the island although there are lighthouse keepers who come in pairs and stay four weeks at a time. The lighthouse is operated by the Canadian Coast Guard. The original lighthouse was built by the British in 1832. There has been a lighthouse maintained ever since. Many think that the presence of the lighthouse will give Canada a legitimate claim to the island. The United States has never had a presence on the island except in 1918 during the First World War when a small detachment of marines was posted to the island with Canadian agreement.
However in the past private citizens in Maine have claimed ownership of the island. There is a tour boat operator from Cutler Maine, who brings tourists to the island in the summer to view the birds. While there has been no oil or mineral resources discovered in the area, there is a large 720 square kilometres around the island called a grey zone. Lobster fishermen from both Canada and the US fish this area.
MP for New Brunswick Southwest , John Williamson said:
"The fishing community on Grand Manan is permitted to fish there on an open-end basis and it's our way of laying our claim to this water that is part of the Machias Seal Island dispute.I think our claim is sound and is legitimate, but at the end of the day it's going to come down to the minister in this country and the administration in Washington to settle it. I think it is in the interests of both of our countries to do that."
Unfortunately an earlier decision of a joint commission in 1817 did not decide the ownership of Machias Sea Island even though it did decide that of other islands in the area including Moose, Dudley, and Fredericks Islands that are now owned by the US and also Grand Manan island that now belongs to Canada.
Stephen Kelly of Duke University and a retired US diplomat thinks that it would be a good idea to resolve the issue.
"It just strikes me if we have this opportunity to remove a potential irritant going forward, why don't we take it. What if some valuable resource is discovered in the grey zone around Machias Seal Island? What if some other contingency that we can't imagine now of strategic importance comes along?Wouldn't we feel silly that we didn't take the opportunity to resolve this when the stakes were relatively low."
Ralph Edlridge, who has been a light-keeper on the island for 16 years, thought ownership was a non-issue. Neither he nor anyone else who comes to visit the island has to worry about showing a passport whether they come from Maine, Canada, China, or Spain he said. Barbara Harvey a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade said that as far as Canada is concerned the island is Canadian: "Canada's sovereignty over Machias Seal Island and sovereign jurisdiction over the 210 square nautical mile surrounding waters is strongly founded in international law." Some residents of Maine may not agree.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

President of Manitoba PCs youth wing resigns after racist comments

Brayden Mazurkiewich, who was president of the youth wing of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party has resigned after posting racist comments on Facebook. The Progressive Conservatives are the official opposition in the Manitoba government.
The president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, Ryan Matthews, in a press release said:
"Comments by Progressive Conservative Youth President Brayden Mazurkiewich have been deemed conduct detrimental to our party. As PC Manitoba party president I have asked Brayden Mazurkiewich for his resignation and received it."
Mazurkiewcih made some of the comments in response to news that a group of four First Nations again won a decision in their favor on the government sale of the Kapyong barracks site located in Winnipeg. The court ruled that the federal government had failed to consult, or even communicate adequately with the First Nations involved before selling the land. The First Nations group has been trying to secure the land as part of a treaty land entitlement. In 2007 the federal Treasury Board decided to sell the barracks' site to the Canada Lands Co, a Crown corporation, to oversee the site's development and resale. The group of First Nations went to Federal Court to have the decision overturned. In September 2009 a judge ruled in the group's favor declaring the transfer invalid because the government did not consult enough with the First Nations about their treaty claims. Now the government's appeal has failed. Mazurkiewich responded to the court decision on Facebook:
"Listen carefully to the news today. Looks like they might be announcing that they're building a freaking reserve in the middle of Winnipeg. This city is quickly becoming the laughing stock of the entire country."
When some people commented on his post Mazurkiewich went on to say of the barracks' site:
"That was built for hardworking men and women of the military, not freeloading Indians."
Mazurkiewich apologized for his outburst and handed in his resignation but he still maintained he is opposed to having an urban reserve on the property saying:
"But my feelings about the reserve going in ... I don't think that would fit well in that community at all. You know, you hear on reserves all the time, people are burning down their own homes. There are shootings and stabbings, and we don't need to bring more of that to Winnipeg."
Mazurkiewich has also made some comments on Twitter that have offended some people as well. He has called the famous Winnipeg Folk Festival the "hippie festival". Francophones he claims are "all just pushy and liberal".

Friday, December 14, 2012

Will Harper finally pull the plug on the F-35 purchase?

According to a December 6 article in the Ottawa Citizen, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has finally decided to pull the plug on a planned purchase of 65 F-35 stealth fighter jets.
An audit, soon to be released by KPMG accountants, will push the projected life-cycle cost of each plane to well above $30 billion. Some even put the figure at close to $40 billion. NOTE: Actually it turns out to be around $45 billion according to the KPMG report. Faced with the huge increases in costs, the operations committee of the federal Cabinet decided to scrap the sole-source program and begin looking at other sources, claims the Ottawa Citizen, citing an anonymous source familiar with the decision.
The Prime Minister's Office denied a media report that the F-35 purchase was dead saying that the report was "inaccurate on a number of fronts". The statement also promised that the government would update the House of Commons on its seven point plan to replace the jets before the Xmas break. The government also claims that no decision has been made on buying the F-35 planes to replace Canada's aging CF-18 fighter jets.
Opposition members of parliament hammered the government on Friday, claiming that the government has consistently hidden the cost of the F-35 jets from the public. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said:
"I don't see how the minister of defence [Peter MacKay] can possibly continue in his job. He's basically been a sales spokesperson for Lockheed Martin, the manufacturers of the F-35, since he took office. He's denigrated and attacked every person in opposition, in the Liberal Party or elsewhere, who has ever raised concerns or questions about this."
Speaking in Toronto, Rae claimed that the government has constantly misled Canadians:
"The government has consistently misled Canadians about the true cost of this aircraft. They've misled Canadians about their degree of oversight and their readiness to deal with the situation."
The Harper government had already put its purchase plan in neutral, if not reverse. Last April, the Canadian Auditor General questioned the reliability of the military's figures on costs of the planes. The government then announced it would undertake an "options analysis" and would consider alternative fighter jets that might meet the military's needs. Prior to this, the government's argument was that only the F-35 could meet the military's needs and that was why there was no competitive bid! The KPMG audit was to be part of the review process.
Originally the cost of the entire project was announced by MacKay as being just $9 billion for the 65 planes. However, a report by the government's own budget office put the cost at $29.3 billion. The federal auditor general put the total cost to buy and maintain the planes at $25 billion. Questions about the F-35 during question period in parliament were not answered by MacKay but by others.
In response to a reporter MacKay said:
"What I can tell you is we're following the seven-point plan as we have been now for some months and into next week there will be an open and transparent discussion about the next steps that are going to follow in the CF-18 replacement."
MacKay and a transparent discussion, something straight out of Onion! In the interests of transparency no doubt, when asked whether the cost would be $40 billion, MacKay did not respond.
The New Democratic Party defence critic, Jack Harris said:
"The whole process is in a shambles, quite frankly. This is not good enough. We've got enough misleading information out there in front of the public.... They didn't do their due diligence, they didn't have an open, fair and transparent process. They've demonstrated their incompetence in a $40-billion-plus contract."
Harris pointed out that the Conservatives attacked anyone who questioned their figures, including their own parliamentary budget office Kevin Page. See the marvelous video with Kevin Page below.
Whenever the purchase plan and process were questioned, the government and military have constantly maintained that the F-35 was the only plane that would be suitable for Canada's needs. Many expect that the specifications were drawn up so that only the F-35 could meet them. Suddenly, all has changed. General Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff told parliamentarians that there were other planes with stealth capabilities.
When Lockheed Martin was asked questions, the company said that they should be asked to the Canadian Department of National Defence but also said:
"Lockheed Martin has been a partner with the Canadian Forces for more than 50 years. We continue to look forward to supporting the Canadian government as they work to provide their air force fifth-generation capability for their future security needs,"
We can expect more fireworks in parliament when the KPMG audit is released and the government provides an update. Peter MacKay the defence minister has not offered to resign and no doubt won't, although it might be a nice Xmas present for many Canadians.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Harper reverses policy and condemns Israeli settlement expansion

In a sudden reversal of Canada's unqualified support for Israel, Stephen Harper warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Canada does not support the expansion of settlements planned by Israel.
Perhaps the negative reactions to Harper's quite one-sided position of supporting everything Israel does changed Harper's mind. European nations and the United States were very critical of the Israeli plans, claiming that they could prevent any peace talks in the near future. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Globe and Mail that Harper told Netanyahu that he believes the settlement construction would impair peace efforts between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. A Globe and Mail editorial earlier criticized the government for not condemning outright the Israeli settlement plans:
Canada’s strident defence of Israel’s interests in the UN vote was legitimate but its zealous threats to punish the Palestinians damaged its ability in Arab eyes to contribute to a much-desired two-state solution. Ottawa could re-establish its independence by strongly condemning Israel’s settlement gambit.
Actually, Canada will hardly establish its independence by taking this new position, rather it now allies itself with the U.S. position on the issue rather than that of the Israelis. The editorial seems to support the Canadian vote against Palestine getting observer status. Another important factor in Harper's decision is no doubt the article by me in the Digital Journal the other day! Foreign Affairs Minister Baird had condemned the overwhelmingly positive vote in the UN Security Council to grant Palestine observer status but now he also condemns the settlement expansion specifically as well:
“The Palestinians’ actions last week were very unhelpful to the cause of peace, and the Israeli response of settlement expansion is very unhelpful to the cause of peace.".
Baird also toned down somewhat his threats against the Palestinians for seeking observer status:
“When we said ‘consequences’ I think the media implied that we would break off relations and cut aid, but we never said either option was on the table."
Baird condemned the Palestinian move vigorously in the UN and recalled envoys for consultation but this seems to be the extent of the government's punishment of Palestine. Canada has provided $300 million in aid projects to Palestine over the last five years. Baird said any future projects will be assessed on their merits and will not be influenced by the UN vote on Palestinian observer status. Baird warned that Canada would be watching Palestine's next moves, particularly any attempt to take Israel to the International Criminal Court with charges that Israel has been violating international law. Any such action would cause Canada great concern he said. He said that this move would be a provocation that merited a strong response. Imagine, any Palestinian attempt to show that Israel is violating international law, is a provocation!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Canada refuses to explicitly criticize the 3,000 new Israeli settlement housing units

While other strong allies of Israel, even the United States, have strongly condemned the Israeli plan to build 3,000 settler homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, Canada refused to directly criticize the plan.
The Jerusalem Post says that Canada is the "gold standard" of support for Israel:
"There is not a government on the planet today more supportive of Israel than Harper's Canada."
Canada, together with the U.S. with only a few other countries voted against granting Palestine observer status at the U.N. While this marks Canada as one of the few supporters of Israel globally on this issue, Canada has now gone even further to show that it is globally number one as a supporter of Israel.
The White House and State Department both complained that the Israeli announcement would be an obstacle to resuming peace talks. Five European countries have removed their ambassadors from Israel in protest of the new plan. Germany had a "very negative view" of the settlement announcement. The UN has warned that the settlement expansion could be almost fatal to restarting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Foreign Minister John Baird repeats the official Conservative position continuously as if repeating some prayer ritual:
"Unilateral actions on either side do not advance the peace process."
Baird's office refuses to even say whether the government still adheres to the established policy which is that the settlements are a "serious obstacle" to peace.
A spokesperson for Stephen Harper. Andrew MacDougall, also refused to say whether Harper raised the issue of new settlement construction with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister when he spoke to him on the weekend by telephone. In an emailed response to the question MacDougall said:
"No further comment on the call — the PM's tweet will stand. I can state that Canada's position is that unilateral actions on either side do not advance the peace process."
The prime minister's Tweet was:
"Spoke today to Benjamin Netanyahu, who thanked Canada for its friendship and principled position this week at the UN."
The Canadian response is in contrast to the U.S. which showed particular concern that the building was in part on a patch of land known as E1 just outside Jerusalem. The settlement will make travel from Bethlehem to Ramallah for Palestinians much longer. A settlement in the area will virtually prevent any Palestinian state from having a contiguous border.Jay Carney, the spokesperson for the White House said:
"We urge Israeli leaders to reconsider these unilateral decisions and exercise restraint as these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations to achieve a two-state solution."
Mark Toner of the U.S. State Department said that construction in the E1 area:
" particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution."
Carney went on to repeat the U.S. "long standing opposition to Israeli settlement activity and east Jerusalem construction." However the Conservative Harper government that holds a similar position now seems unwilling to repeat it in public. The Canadian Foreign Affairs website says:
"As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive just and lasting peace."
When Baird's spokesperson was asked whether the government still accepted this position, the response was:
"Unilateral actions on either side do not advance the peace process."
The spokesperson refused to elaborate further. The government simply refuses to repeat what is on its own Foreign Affairs website!
Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International in Canada, urged the government to speak out more forcefully against the expanded settlement plan just as other countries did.
"It's unfortunate to simply characterize this as being a unilateral action. These are human rights violations. These are breaches of international humanitarian law. This isn't simply deciding to do something unilaterally. I think the response from Canada should be equally clear and not left to implicit interpretation as to what Canada is or is not saying, or is or is not concerned about."
Canada's pro-Israeli policy has brought it considerable international attention. There is even an entire article on the subject in Al Jazeera. Even the Israelis make joking remarks about Canada's support for Israel At a reception for John Baird, the Foreign Minister, Likud Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said:
"I think Canada's an even better friend of Israel than we are."
The appended video gives some of the history of Israel Canada relations. Canadian governments have always been pro-Israel but the present government has taken support for Israel to extreme lengths. This support provides Israel with joy and apparently some amusement as well.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Canadian economy slows in third quarter of 2012

In the July-September, third quarter, Canada suffered the largest drop in exports in three years. The economy grew at a 0.6% annual rate compared to 1.7% in the first two quarters.
While Canada has recovered relatively quickly from the recession compared to some other countries, growth has become more sluggish in 2012. and particularly in the last quarter. While the Bank of Canada and many economists had been expecting a slowdown in the third quarter the results were even weaker than expected.
Analysts predicted that even with the slowing economy, the Bank of Canada will still take the position that interest rate hikes may be needed down the road. Michael Gregory, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets said:
"The Bank of Canada bias is very much a long-term bias so it's not going to be changing any time soon. But there is no question the Canadian economy is under-performing a bit here and if this continues past the turn of the year and the whole 'fiscal cliff' in the U.S., we could see a different tone from the Bank of Canada. But it is way too early for that to be happening now."
The Bank has kept the benchmark rate at a low 1% for more than two years now.
The 0.6% growth rate was below a Reuters poll average of 0.9% and the Bank of Canada's forecast of 1%. The U.S. economy did much better during the period at 2.7%. Business investment in Canada actually declined by 0.6% in the third quarter. This is the first decline since 2009 and contrasts with a growth of 1.3% in the first quarter.
Exports were hard hit by the relatively weak growth in the U.S. and problems in Europe. They fell by 2% during the quarter. Consumer spending continues to increase in spite of the high debt load of many Canadians. It grew at the fastest pace in two years rising by almost 4%.
Residential housing construction also declined during the quarter by 4.4%. Tougher mortgage rules may be causing lower demand.
The Bank of Canada is predicting the the fourth quarter will see growth of 2.5% but with these latest figures that may be optimistic. Paul Ferley, an economist at the Royal Bank of Canada said:
"Expectations had been that after a weak third-quarter activity we would bounce back in the fourth quarter. It could still be the case, there were some temporary factors that don't look like they have fully reversed as yet, we may see that in October, but it may limit the rebound in the fourth quarter to something closer to 2 percent."