Register Tuesday | March 20 | 2018

Requiem for the Rhino, Maybe

Is the joke (candidate) still funny?

"Elections," Kim Campbell famously said, "are no time to discuss serious issues." Damn straight-elections are a time for antics; just not this year. Sure, the namby-pamby oversensitivity that marred the current campaign's early days has given way to some semi-spirited vitriol during the home stretch, but it's still watery bloodsport at best. (Think back to the Sopranos-style drama of 1965, when John Diefenbaker publicly called Lester B. Pearson a murderous thug. Now, that's entertainment!). Worse, laughs are an even more scarce campaign commodity: if I have to watch footage of Paul Martin's hobbled sleighride one more time, or again endure the anemic hustings "colour" of Christie Blatchford's tuneless iPod warbling (CBC's The House; January 7), I'm switching over to Ghost Whisperer. Yes, it's that bad.

I dearly miss the federal Rhino Party.

The gimmick-heavy 1965 federal election was the perfect launching pad for the Parti Rhinocéros. Desperate to counter voter apathy, candidates across the spectrum dug deep into the ol' novelty bag. In BC, SoCred hopefuls were taking baby-kissing to peculiar new dimensions, plying tykes with candy pharmaceuticals ("Your prescription for curing Canada's ills") and wowing teens with gratis 45 RPM records featuring the square vocal stylings of leader Robert Thompson. In Quebec, Conservative candidates were screening Brigitte Bardot flicks to help fill rallies. Ontario Liberals handed out red laundry bags.

Enter the Rhinoceros.

The brainchild of novelist-physician Jacques Ferron, the Rhinos started modestly, running a handful of candidates in Quebec ridings, but the nascent party's anonymity was short-lived. La Presse reporter and Rhino candidate Lucien Rivard (Montreal Papineau) garnered a whack of media attention when he took a garden hose in hand and officially opened a neighbourhood skating rink. The underwhelming stunt not only deflated the concept of the pompous politico photo-op, it harboured a biting subtext: Earlier in the year, another Lucien Rivard, this one a low-level criminal cooling his heels in Bordeaux Jail, convinced guards to let him water the prison rink-on an above-zero evening, no less-and then used the hose to climb to freedom. The escape spurred accusations of prison corruption, which, incredibly enough, soon snaked all the way up to the Prime Minister's office. (Long story short: Diefenbaker ended up calling Pearson a murderous thug.)

Ferron's smart satire proved the template for three decades of inspired tomfoolery across the country. Over the course of seven federal elections, and a smattering of by-elections, Rhino candidates vowed to abolish the environment (too much upkeep), repeal the law of gravity (too heavy), legalize pot (and pans, and...), increase the speed of light at intersections (to reduce traffic congestion), fight for the right to arm bears (so wildlife could defend itself from gun-toting Yankee tourists) and a host of other absurdities. In a masterstroke of pretzel logic, Rhino chief agent and self-proclaimed "janitor" Charlie McKenzie promised not to keep any campaign promises. Including, one presumed, that one.

Bad puns abounded (''To facilitate higher education," crowed McKenzie in '88, "we promise to build taller schools"), but even the groaners were elevated to the realm of the sublime by virtue of their very inclusion in the inherently humourless political machine. (The same principle explains why it's so much fun to program word-processors to voice aloud, in emotionless compu-cadence, jaw-dropping obscenities). Therein lies the unmatchable comedic beauty of joke politics: the democratic imperative to hear out even the silliest of babble. Year after year, something as banal as the elections results became hilarious as newspapers dutifully included "RHINO-Rhinoceros Party" alongside "L-Liberal" and "PC-Progressive Conservative" in their abbreviation keys. This was performance art of the highest order. Heck, the Rhinos even had their own cocktail (Grand Marnier, tequila, Bailey's)-they definitely put the "party" back in, um, "party."

This all changed in 1993, when the Mulroney government passed Bill C-114. Deemed "a concerted effort to wipe out all the fringe parties" (thus spake Rhino mainstay Brian "Godzilla" Salmi), the Elections Act amendment radically altered the requirements for registration. Parties now required a minimum of fifty candidates, each of whom had to pay a $1,000 deposit. The math was simple but cruel. Ten parties (including SoCreds, Western separatists and that most venerable of fringers, the 72 year-old Communist Party of Canada) dropped off the 1993 ballot.

Goodbye Rhinos, hello dullsville.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down Bill C-114, clearing the way for Canadian fringe parties to again swarm the hustings. If the Commies could stage a comeback in 2006, why shouldn't the Rhinos follow suit the next time Canadians go to the polls? (say, in another fourteen months ... ) Bringing in the funny certainly wouldn't be a problem-satire may have the shelf-life of buttermilk, but a revived Rhino Party could easily infuse the big-ticket contemporary issues-gun control, gay marriage, beer, popcorn, that little island Canada and Denmark keep squabbling over-with a sorely-needed dose of monkey business. (And, hey, it's alwaysfunny to propose Manitoba be covered in asphalt.) A Rhino rampage would be a surefire antidote to another yawner of an election. But there's a catch.

The new Canadian reality of hardscrabble minority governments and an ever-strengthening right has redrawn the idea of the protest vote; the noble Rhinoceros may be a victim; not of hunters, but evolution. Strategy is the new protest. Dissatisfied Canadians, whether frustrated by their political choice's flagging vitality or a lack of choice altogether, face a serious crisis: do we vote with the heart, or with the head? Just as the mere notion of "not voting" now conjures thousands of ink-stained index fingers wagging in shame, the idea of launching even a single protest vote into the fringe now seems like an archaic luxury. Your enemy's enemy may not be your friend - but now he may get your vote all the same.

Not that the Rhinos were about getting votes per se; a popular party maxim held that if they ever actually won a seat, they would demand a recount. But of course they never won a seat and, at their 1980 prime, captured a little over 1 percent of the vote. As their 1993 demise made clear, however, the pranksters were serious about one thing: to exercise their right to play the game and to get a few laughs (and take a few shots) while doing it. Still, there's a horrible truth about joke politics: it's only funny if you take the process seriously (you can't pretend to run) and if you take the process seriously, you're going to get somevotes-guaranteed.

Trust me. I'm a frustrated Rhino wannabe.

The same year the Rhinos died, I conducted my own modest experiment in joke politics, using the low-stakes laboratory of university student politics. Locking the students' union presidency in my crosshairs, I erected a platform of utmost simplicity. My goal was to actively solicit zero votes. Impossible? Only time would tell.

In what I fancied to be high Rhino-esque fashion, I stumped hard, explicit in my desire for nothing less than, well, nothing. Every public appearance offered a fresh stage for guerilla theatre. When windbag candidates forced strict time limits during a tightly-scheduled rally, I delivered precisely 120 seconds of blank-faced silence. During another event, I turned the floor over to a belligerent clown with three-day growth erupting from slapdash greasepaint. ("You guys like balloon animals?" he asked, fingering a limp piece of rubber while sucking on a cigarette. "Here you go. It's a worm.") So it went.

In the end, 112 adults saw fit to vote for someone who unequivocally did not wish to be elected. I placed nowhere close to first (or second, or third...) but I did manage to beat two serious candidates. It was a touch unsettling.

Assisted suicide ain't got nuthin' on my crisis of conscience. I'm seriously jonesing for Rhino hi-jinx and I cherish their (your, my) democratic right to yuk it up on the stump. Trouble is, the stakes are way too high to risk any degree of Nader effect-I simply don't trust the electorate to enjoy the satire and yet not spoil the fun by, y'know, voting for it. When empires (however provisional) are being built on scraps, I'm wary of dropping any crumbs. Even if it means forgoing some much-needed shits'n'giggles.

To joke, or not to joke? Alas, it may be time for this chicken to cross the floor. And that just ain't funny.