COLUMN: Tired politics in need of fresh satire

I can remember the first political platform that I actually took the time to think about.

By JIM ZEEBEN

I can remember the first political platform that I actually took the time to think about.

It was on page 8 of the April 26, 1979, edition of the Ottawa Citizen in a story written by staff writer Linda Drouin.

The article was about the unveiling of a local candidate in a federal political party. Their platform included a proposal to return to the British custom of driving on the left side of the road.

In order to give Canadians time to adjust, the change would be done over a five-year period. In the first year, only trucks and buses would use the left side. The next year, “big American trucks” would make the switch, followed by small imported cars in the third year and, in the final year, two-wheeled vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles and wheelchairs.

On first read I crinkled my nose and looked around for someone to share my disbelief. Then I got it. The idea was meant to be ridiculous.

I was still in elementary school, but the Rhino Party had made such an impression on me that I spent the next day trying to explain their politics to befuddled classmates.

And while the image of cars caught up in a chaotic policy switch was silly enough to capture the imagination of an 11-year-old, the satire also helped shed some light on the very real issue of bureaucratic foolishness plaguing the government.

Other Rhino policies of the day included leaving the corner of the dollar bill blank so cashiers could pencil in the value at the time of transaction. This in an era when most commentary about our battered currency was either dire or abstruse or both.

The Rhinos made many issues facing Canadians accessible in ways that only good satire can.

The humour offended some – the Rhinos actually had 53 candidates, which shocked plenty of people who didn’t have any sense of hee-haw. The original Rhino party disbanded in 1993, after a dispute about a new rule that required parties to run candidates in at least 50 ridings, with each paying a fee of $1,000.

A new party bearing the Rhino flag was reborn in 2007 and fielded 14 candidates in the 2011 federal election. A dozen were in Quebec but B.C. and Alberta also had one candidate each.

So far they’ve failed to capture Canadians’ imaginations on the scale their forebears did.

Satire, as good as it is at shedding light on dense subjects, is very difficult to pull off well. Finding the right mix of irony and sarcasm is critical.

It can come across as angry, even hateful, if not done with care.

At one time, satirical columns were common in newspapers but these days most editors are wary of risking the trust of readers. That, and the fact readers are inundated with websites that miss the mark when they attempt satire, but really deal in mock news that’s more misinformation than clever commentary.

There are still great sources of satire, of course. Stephen Colbert remains hugely popular around the world and The Onion magazine’s website provides constant fodder for people to share through sites like Facebook. If you can relate to the Brits, the U.K. also continues to pump out comedians with that rare ability to skewer sacred institutions while tickling your funny bone.

In Canada, Rick Mercer’s rants consistently find that sweet spot between comedy and crassness. And in the Capital Region, I suppose we’ve seen successful satire with the now-retired Mr. Floatie and his campaign for sewage treatment.

I’m curious about the state of satire. I know many letter writers have a rapier-like wit and can take a poke at some of the issues affecting folks.

But I wonder if it still has life?

Jim Zeeben is editor of the Saanich News, a Black Press newspaper.

 

 

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