We love our “democracy sausage”. But in 1989, the Labor Premier of Western Australia, Peter Dowding, was in trouble for giving sausages away free. His free family sausage sizzle, at an Australia Day function attended by Prime Minister Bob Hawke a week before the state election, could have  breached the Electoral Act.  The Electoral Commission finally decided that “the dissemination of sausages” was not a bribe under the Act.

The fund-raising sausage sizzle is a traditional way to make money from hungry voters on election days. But its origins go back to the 1940s. Originally, sausage sizzles seem to have been associated with community organisations, country walks and camp fires – a bit like the chop picnic. According to Sydney Living Museum’s blog, The Cook and the Curator, the earliest charity  sizzle may have been the “Full Moon Sausage Sizzle”, held by the Forbes Junior Country Women’s Association in 1946 to collect food for Britain after World War II.

For some, the rising popularity of the sausage sizzle was something of a let down. In 1950, the Sydney Morning Herald sniffed: “Once a barbecued ox was the thing; but now a North Shore progress association is inviting citizens to a “Sausage Sizzle.”

The appearance of portable gas barbecues in the early 1960s made sausage sizzles a drawcard for commercial enterprises, a feature of school fetes and way to supplement the traditional cake stall at election-day polling places. The recipe was simple: white bread, a sausage, onions and sauce. There might be a choice of sauce (tomato or barbecue) or, sometimes, mustard.

The smell of frying onions soon became a familiar accompaniment to Saturday morning hardware shopping. This in itself has caused controversy in recent times, when hardware giant Bunnings issued guidelines for charities selling sausages outside its stores. The onions, they said, had to go under the sausage. This was in response to several law suits after customers had slipped on greasy onions spilled on the floor. Traditionalists were incensed and a social media storm ensued.

Back in 1989, Labor was fighting hard to retain government in Western Australia after scandals relating to government involvement in bailing out struggling corporate enterprises. A free sausage sizzle on Australia day would seem to be a relatively innocent affair by comparison. However, the supply of food or drink after nominations have officially been declared is included in the definition of bribery in section 182 of the Electoral Act. Dowling argued that he had not tried to bribe voters with free sausages and, after a police investigation,  he was exonerated.