A Detailed And Delicious History Of The Democracy Sausage

A WA Premier was once reported to the police for allegedly bribing voters with sausages. It was eventually ruled that sausages are not legally considered a bribe.

democracy sausage history

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The 2022 federal election is fast approaching, which means you have your triennial opportunity to exercise your democratic right to vote and — more importantly — your chance to chow down on the Australian delicacy known as the democracy sausage.

A sausage in bread is such a quintessential part of Australia’s democratic system that even Twitter has adopted the democracy sausage as its official icon of the 2022 federal election. But where did the democracy sausage come from and why is it so significant?

It’s been an absolute shit blizzard of an election campaign, so kick back, relax and let me tell you the story of the democracy sausage.

Australian Voters Are Charitable Kings And Queens

The democracy sausage (or cake, or ANZAC biscuit or hedgehog slice) you chow down on after casting your vote doubles as your good deed for the day because these barbecues and cake stalls are organised and run by charities and community groups as a fundraiser.

And according to political historian and author of From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting Judith Brett, we can thank our compulsory voting laws for this.

“There’s a photo in the 1930s of a polling booth with a cake stall outside, so I think community organisations saw it was an opportunity to fund-raise,” Brett told CNN of the phenomenon.

A combination of the fact that you get slapped with a fine for not voting, and the 1911 law that requires polling to take place on a Saturday means that exercising your democratic right quickly became a social outing for friends and family. And what’s a Saturday morning social outing without a little treat? Absolute hell, that’s what it is.

“The other crucial thing is that Australians are not tied to vote at a particular polling booth,” Brett told CNN, noting that other countries have stricter voting location requirements.

The Significance Of The Sausage

Democracy aside, the humble sausage has a pretty significant role in Australia’s history.

Throughout World War II — when prime meat cuts were rationed — you could chow down on as many sausages as your heart (and stomach) desired, largely because they were filled with all of the weird cuts of meat that would likely now be turned into dog food.

But it wasn’t until after World War II that the humble saus got the glow-up it so desperately deserved — thanks, in part, to one of the first known sausage sizzles. The first sizzle in 1946 — the Full Moon Sausage Sizzle — was run by the Country Women’s Association (CWA) to collect food to be sent to England.

So, in addition to being delicious, chowing down on a snag in bread officially became your good deed for the day. And with that, the sausage completed the rebrand from wartime food scrap to national treasure.

Not Such A Democracy Sausage

Sausages, specifically, appearing at polling booths didn’t kick off until the 1980s, when portable barbecues were invented. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows (and sausages) when the democracy sausage first launched. In fact, some actually questioned the democratic nature of it altogether.

In 1989, West Australian Premier Peter Dowding was forced to deny bribery allegations before the state election. No, not financial bribes, Dowding was accused of bribing voters with free sausages.

The WA Liberal Party lodged a police report claiming that an ALP “free family sausage sizzle” held a week before the election — and attended by Dowding, then-PM Bob Hawke and his wife Hazel — breached the electoral act.

But it gets messier because Dowding then clapped back at Liberal Party Leader Barry MacKinnon, accusing him of “being involved” in the “dissemination of sausages after he was papped wearing a BBQ hat and apron. You truly cannot make this shit up.

Ultimately, the police concluded that electoral bribery “does not include the general provision of food and drink at sausage sizzles.”

Sausage Publicity Is Good Publicity, Or Is It?

The sausage is as much of an Australian working-class staple as Jimmy Barnes, so for politicians trying to win the hearts (and votes) of the public, being papped at a sausage sizzle is a win.

The sausage sizzle is everything Australians want: it’s affordable (maybe not in this economy, but you get the idea), it’s not fussy and it’s synonymous with family and friends gathering around a BBQ and celebrating their time together. What’s not to love?

“Because it is a truly unifying experience and a symbol of ordinary personhood, that is why politicians get in trouble when they don’t eat one when they’re expected to,” ABC chief political writer Annabel Crabb said of a politician at a BBQ. “It’s funny, but it’s also not funny — it’s really a serious infraction of the social contract.”

We’ve seen everyone from Julia Gillard to Scott Morrison work the barbecue over the years and generally, it’s a good PR opportunity. Unless, of course, you’re a lizard-person wearing a politician suit and do something weird.

In 2017, we saw then-PM Malcolm Turnbull refuse a sausage when visiting then-flood ravaged Lismore.

“That’s lovely, that’s very kind of you but I think I am running around a bit much to be eating that,” Mr Turnbull told a CWA volunteer at the time.

I’m not kidding when I say this tanked his already-plummeting popularity. But perhaps he did himself a favour because surely refusing a sausage is better than the time Bill Shorten went full chaos mode and ate his sausage sizzle… sideways? And, to make matters worse, on a bread roll??? Feels illegal but okay.

The #DemocracySausage Brought Us Together In A Time Of Great Turmoil

If we’re getting technical, the term was first soft-launched on social media in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it really hit its stride.

The year was 2016, we were in the longest official political campaign Australia had ever seen. Vibes were low and Australians were looking for something, anything, to hold on to. And that, my friends, is where the democracy sausage comes in. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of a political clusterfuck, the term “democracy sausage” entered the discourse.

“That’s terrible isn’t it — that we turn to a stick of processed, ground meat when our living, breathing politicians disappoint us,” Annabel Crabb told the ABC. “But I think one of the antidotes for disappointment in the political system is, you look around at your local community and think, ‘well actually, I live in a pretty good place, and I quite like sausages, so there’s that.”

While she doesn’t claim to have coined the term, Annette Tyler of democracysausage.org — a crowdsourced map of Australia’s democracy sausage sites — credits the website for popularising the term. “The map got picked up. News outlets embedded it on their page and we thought, ‘this is pretty fun, we could do this again’,” she told the ABC.

Following the 2016 election, the democracy sausage cemented its place in Australian history as the 2016 Word of the Year.

Sausages Vs The World

Like a 21-year-old on their first Contiki tour, the democracy sausage quickly took the world by storm.

According to the experts at Democracysausage.org, snags have been offered for voters living abroad in places like the US, UK and even at the Australian High Commission in Ghana.

Lavender Baj is Junkee’s senior reporter focusing on news and politics — particularly democracy sausages. Follow her on Twitter