The Democracy Sausage – the sizzling history of Australia’s election staple

Once seen as a quirk of Australian democracy, the “Democracy sausage” has become part of the Australian democratic process. On election day across the country, barbecues are held at polling booths serving crispy small goods wrapped snugly in a slices of fluffy white bread; with sauce and onions optional. The sausage sizzles are normally hosted by a community group or school, with money collected going to charity. But how did this iconic smallgood emerge as important part of our polling day process?

Aussie Democracy in action.

The term was first recorded as being used on Twitter during the 2012 Federal election, where then-Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull won in a tight race against Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Prior to the rise of the democracy sausage, social gatherings around polling booths and election nights were nothing new. Election day snag eating has been part of the Australian cultural norm since the late 70s, with films like Don’s Party in 1976 showing off the fascination Australia had with the election night race. Even in the 90s, former Prime-ministers John Howard and Paul Keating were photographed by the press hovering around a hotplate, either turning or snacking on their election day snag. However, it was not until 2016 that Australia’s sausage sizzle obsession hit the headlines.

When a sausage-on-bread emoji alongside Twitter’s #ausvotes hashtag, the association between democracy and an on-the-day barbecue were cemented; an election day sausage sizzle was officially a cultural norm. ABC reports suggest that Queensland voters alone consumed over 3.5 million sausages on polling day that year. The media too were involved in the action, and became flabbergast when pictures of Bill Shorten emerged eating his democracy sausage from the middle of the bread, and not at the end. One Sydney Morning Herald article read ‘Federal election 2016: Bill Shorten confounds by eating sausage sizzle from the side’ and Twitter too was equally surprised.

Comments by Twitter users.

You might be wondering; why sausages? Well, sausages in Australia were not popular prior to World War Two. But during the war, they rose in popularity as they were cheap and easily accessible – even though they were often full of butcher’s scraps. But after the war, the humble snag was treated with the cold shoulder; even though the first mention of a sausage sizzle goes back to 1946. However, the 1960s saw a big change in the perception of the sausage and since then, it’s been used at events involved in community bonding. The ABC has even referred to it as an “Aussie Institution”; and this is why the democracy sausage is so important on election day. 

An interactive #democracysausage map from showing sizzles operating on election day.

The snag-on-bread represents more than a meal. It represents a community connection; a generalised Australian experience. Most Australians have grown up with a BBQ experience; many taking place at a lion’s club, a school, a community gathering or school fundraiser. So on election day, when people come together around artery clogging foodstuffs, it’s in the spirit of “democracy”; which is why many get riled up over politicians eating their snags a certain way. The 2019 federal election will see over 16.4 million enrolled voters descend on election barbecues, many who will likely pass judgement on political snag-eating, some in hotly contested seats. These are record figrues for any country, and equate to abour 90% of eligible Australian voters. In comparison, turnout at the last American election sat at about 55% of eligible voters and as for the British election, only 70% of eligible voters filled in a ballot. So, by comparison, these are big figures! But with all these voters comes the need for extra sausages.

The Democracy Sausage has been operating since 2013, and runs a map where voters can locate sausage sizzles, cake stalls, coffee and halal food available on election day, with the site humorously explains that Democracy sausages are practically part of the Australian constitution. Understandably, the team behind it are experts on everything to do with election day snags. “To us, the democracy sausage is one of the few unifying experiences of election day. No matter which party you support, everyone can get together and support their local community groups by buying a sausage,” the team spokesperson says, “Sausages are simple – just chuck a few snags on the barbie, add some onions, bread and sauce and you’re ready to go.” But is there a wrong way to munch down on your democracy sausage come polling day? “The worst way for a politician to eat a Democracy Sausage is to NOT eat the sausage,” the spokesperson adds, “Other than that, though we’d love to say any way is fine as it’s all for the good of the community, there is a general consensus that from the middle a la Bill Shorten 2016 is definitely wrong.”

But does personal preference when it comes to our Democracy sausage? Beef and/or Lamb seems to trump recommendations online, with this Aussie fallback being seen as the default across ballot based barbecues nationwide. But it all comes down to preference, and the people on the street seem to reflect this belief. “My personal favourite is Lamb… a sausage sizzle is quintessentially Aussie, I mean, who doesn’t love a snag?,” one says. “I actually don’t eat meat,” another comments, “But they never seem to have a meat-free option at election day barbecues.” Twitter, too, is rife with opinions on the topic, but all comments tend to stear clear of debating sausage type. 

The Democracy Sausage is not alone in offering up options for hungry voters. The consumer affairs magazine CHOICE has even released an article evaluating the best democracy sausages, with hashtags already filling up across Twitter and Instagram with debates hotly raging over the best sausage and the best place to grab one come election day. So, what’s a democracy sausage? It’s not just a snag on a roll or bread, with the option of crispy onions, bacon or eggs. Tomato sauce or BBQ? The debate still rages. The democracy sausage is, and likely always will be, an Australian political institution, and the election today will not just see a close, political race. The race for the best #democracysausage will surely be just as hot.

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