|Its the dead of winter, the holidays are over, we have a federal election looming, and yet, no comedic candidates are popping up on the electoral scene. While we may laugh at our current MP because of their lack of intellect or bulletproof hair, these representatives present themselves as serious choices. However, there was a time in recent history when elections werent just populated with boring stiffs genuine joke candidates were part of the electoral process.
In Canada, when it came to a mandate of silliness, one political party stood horns and hide above all others: The Rhinoceros Party.
The Rhinos were a registered political party in Canada from the 1960s to the 1990s. Party organizers felt their mascot was an ideal symbol: rhinoceros (the animal), like politicians, are thick-skinned, slow-moving and not too bright, but can move fast as hell when in danger. Their party had many interesting promises their main one being to break every promise they made (a strategy which, they claimed, was co-opted by the mainstream parties). Other promises included repealing the law of gravity and legalizing pot (and pans
and other kitchen utensils).
As for the number of votes they obtained in elections, it was mostly miniscule, but some members did remarkably well at times. In the 1980 federal election, one Rhino candidate placed second to the Liberal candidate, and well ahead of the Tories and the NDP. Sadly, due to electoral regulations in effect during the 1993 election, Elections Canada required the party to run candidates in at least 50 ridings at a cost of $1,000 per candidate. The party balked, and was removed from the Registry of Canadian Political Parties.
Which brings up the first unfunny roadblock for joke candidates: electoral regulations.
On Elections Canadas website (unofficial motto: "humour has no business here"), it states that if youre standing as a candidate in a federal election, you need 100 signatures from residents of your riding supporting your bid. You then pay a deposit of $1,000 (part of which may be refundable upon filing a campaign return). Furthermore, you must appoint an official agent, who will act as the treasurer of the campaign, and a campaign auditor.
Thats just for individual candidates for parties, add a whole other layer of required bureaucracy. As per Elections Canada, any party requires, to start, a leader, at least three officers, a chief agent and an auditor. Thats a minimum of six people and the party name still isnt on the ballot. Upon registration, at least 250 people must come forward as party members. The party will need to provide supporting documents, such as its constitution, political program, information on their funding, etc., etc. At this point, if you were a joke candidate, you couldnt be blamed for feeling the funny was being sucked out of you.
After recruiting the required people for the party and the individual candidates, add in the paperwork. You have to document every expense and contribution, because after the election, you must file an election expenses return. While you receive partial reimbursement for expenses, that only kicks in once you reach two per cent of the vote nationally, or five per cent of valid votes in districts where you ran candidates (the Rhino party in the 1980 election just scraped together one per cent of the national vote, and that was after several years on the electoral scene). So joke candidates and parties are looking at wasting any money they throw into the campaign.
Once youve got through the red tape, youll need to plan a strategy and launch a platform (even if it is a silly platform). Add in the expenses for travel, printed promotional material, support staff and any other costs, and soon you realize electoral humour is serious. Any joke candidates still standing after they finish with these organizational and regulatory issues would have to be either really determined or crazy. Or both.
Another threat, once you get your joke party up and heckling, is internal party pressures. As these parties grow, a split may occur. This has happened to protest parties in England (Official Monster Raving Loony Party) and New Zealand (McGillicuddy Serious Party). The parties split along lines of those who were there to have fun, and those who wanted to promote the party as a legitimate (yet comedic) protest vote. Much like what happened in the 1990s with the Progressive Conservative and Reform parties, the split usually weakens support, sometimes damaging the party fatally.
Weakened overall support for the general electoral process may have an impact as well. According to Dr. Jansen, political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, most democracies worldwide have seen a downturn in the number of people voting. In Canada, voter turnout has dropped to 60 per cent in 2004 from above 70 per cent in the 1960s. Fewer people involved in the political process means its harder for any small political party to build itself.
Some marketing tactics can also feed this lack of interest in joke candidates. How many times have we seen products or interest groups frame their views in an election-style package? For example, Parti Bleu was advertising for Labatt Blue Lager while the Natural Law Party promoted transcendental meditation (remember the bouncing yogis and their claim of world peace through yogic flying?). Yes, Natural Law claimed to be serious, and they did field candidates in previous elections, but what better way to highlight your cause and potentially garner free media coverage than as an electoral candidate?
Thats not to say that as a joke candidate you cant have fun while promoting a worthwhile cause. Just ask POOP (People Opposed to Outflow Pollution). Their mascot, Mr. Floatie a human sized piece of poo ran in the city of Victorias civic election in October. POOP exists to highlight the real problem of Victoria dumping untreated raw sewage into the ocean. James Skwarok ( a.k.a. "Mr. Floatie") decided the best way to generate publicity was to run for mayor. James said that his candidacy was "mainly a publicity stunt to raise awareness of the sewage issue." He knew electoral officials would have problems with his nomination. They balked at putting "Mr. Floatie" down as the candidates name, and eventually decided to sue to recover the cost of hiring lawyers to contest the nomination. While POOP withdrew Mr. Floatie, their story was picked up by 50 Canadian and U.S. papers their interest piqued by a story of a piece of crap running for mayor and then getting his behind sued by the city. Net result? Massive free publicity for their cause.
Yet whether its issue related or just good clean silliness, the list of Registered Political Parties on Elections Canadas website doesnt contain any joke parties (some would argue that the Marijuana and Christian Heritage parties might qualify, but their humour is not intentional). There was some hope that the Lemon Party (their motto: "Defending Your Interests to the Bitter End!") might revive itself and become the saviour of campaign silliness, however, during the 2004 election they missed the deadline for registering candidates, and their website hasnt been updated since then. The party itself sprang from Quebec provincial politics first, and thats where the future may lie for joke candidates. Like POOP and Mr. Floatie demonstrated in Victorias civic election, a smaller market might mean more attention to a local cause, coupled with lesser electoral costs and red tape.
Should we be concerned that our electoral process lacks joke candidates? Some people might argue that in our multi-channel, Internet-wired world, its easier for campaign punsters to comment on the process without the cost and bureaucracy. But a system with a few loonies, Rhinos and other deliberate fools might give us some relief from the accidental idiots (and their ridiculous hair or moustaches) who come begging for our votes.