'It's a mess." The most entertaining national political leader this country has yet had -- a man who once claimed the world record for election promises with 51 in a time space of 5:41 minutes -- says he's glad to be out of the game if it's come to this.
"Those debates were boring," says Charlie McKenzie. "They weren't even debates -- they were infomercials." The former leader of the now-defunct Rhinoceros Party of Canada sits in his Montreal home and ponders a political landscape that hasn't seen a smile since the Rhinos stopped operations in 1993.
This, after all, was the party that once promised to knock down the Rockies and build bicycle paths sloping in each direction so Canadians could bike coast to coast. They were going to put an import quota on winters so that Canadians could "get back to the four basic seasons: salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar." They were going to eliminate sexism forever by sending a men's synchronized swimming team to the Olympics.
They wanted to mark out a 250-mile coastal limit using water colours so that Canadian fish would know precisely where they were at all times. And they vowed to put the National Research Council to work on a program designed to shift the mosquito breeding season to January, so that "when the little buggers come out, they'll freeze to death."
They also promised to keep none of their promises.
McKenzie's personal proudest moment came in the 1988 general election, when he ran in Ottawa-Vanier -- the riding that holds 24 Sussex Drive, which he claimed as his official residence -- and shattered the national record for election promises.
The Rhinos claimed the standard had been set in 1984 by then prime minister John Turner when he made 29 promises in 40 minutes. Barely pausing for air, McKenzie reeled off a string of 51, including a vow "to wear clean socks and change my underwear." It was a time of free trade, closet space for Guccis and Suzanne Blais-Grenier, and the party eventually decided it simply could not compete with the real thing when it came to satire.
In 1993, the Rhinos argued with Elections Canada that the Constitution guaranteed the right of all Canadians to run for office, not just those who could afford the $1,000 deposit (refundable if the candidate received 2 per cent of the vote) and when they lost their case they decided to quit completely. McKenzie was ordered to liquidate the party's assets and turn them over, which he refused to do. "Our 'assets' were worth about $27," he says.
These days, Charlie McKenzie, 62, spends his time as a freelance writer and is increasingly involved in the Psoriasis Education Program, a project to raise national awareness on the skin disorder. He suffers from it himself, but adds that, "Fortunately, as a former Rhino, I'm blessed with thick skin." He also -- largely because he cannot help himself -- pays attention to the political scene, both provincially and nationally.
To put it mildly, McKenzie is not much impressed with what he's seen so far in this campaign, especially from the Leader of the Conservative Party: "Stephen Harper should either quit using drugs -- or start!"
As for the Leader of the New Democratic Party, McKenzie commends Jack Layton for "keeping his mustache -- continue to defy the Nazi mustache police." If any national leader came out of the debate and this past weekend with the edge, says McKenzie, it was Liberal Leader Paul Martin.
"I like what he's got going with that leather jacket Clint Eastwood/Bob Newhart thing. I mean, this is the most Canadian prime minister we've ever seen, isn't it, with all that throat-clearing and all those 'umms.' " As for Gilles Duceppe, Leader of the Bloc Québécois, McKenzie is considerably impressed, though it pains him to say so.
When the Rhinos disbanded in 1993, he says, some 153,000 Quebec Rhino members went out into the world with no real political affiliation but satire and mischief.
They were so appalled by the federal government's refusal to let them run without placing deposits that a great many of them turned their backs, forever, on Ottawa and drifted, McKenzie says, "onto the secessionist side." Some former members even work in the higher levels of the Bloc now.
Two years after the Rhinos folded, the sovereigntists very nearly won the Quebec referendum and McKenzie, a committed federalist, fears that the fallout from the Gomery inquiry into the government sponsorship scandal is going to tip the scales dangerously in the direction of breakup.
"They're going to pull it off this time," he says. "I honestly think it can happen now." Duceppe, he says, has been given too much of a gift through Gomery to do anything but succeed on Jan. 23, and what happens after that is not a pleasant thought.
Which is why Charlie McKenzie, former Rhino, lifelong satirist, is now calling for a pre-emptive strike.
"Look," he says, "If Duceppe keeps going on with this sovereignty business, we should kick him out of the country."