Amongst all of the analysis that will undoubtedly follow the weekend’s Northern Territory election, one important issue has almost slipped past without mention. In the days leading up to the election the Northern Territory Electoral Commission launched a quiet attack on a great Australian tradition.
Earlier this year the NT Government amended the Electoral Act to prohibit canvassing for votes (and similar conduct) within 100 metres of a polling place. These amendments extended the previous exclusion zone from 10 metres to 100 metres. The amendments were intended to make the area surrounding a polling place apolitical. In the lead-up to the election, however, it became clear that the new laws would have an unintended consequence for that great Australian Election Day tradition – the democracy sausage.
The Northern Territory Electoral Commission sent out a newsletter to schools before the election warning them that sausage sizzles on Election Day were caught by the new laws. While sausage sizzles could occur within the 100 metre boundary, they had to be conducted apolitically. This meant that staff working at the BBQs “ must refrain from discussing political matters” and that the BBQs could not be manned by a party or candidate worker or even by a former politician.
The implied right to freedom of political communication that was discovered in the Constitution by the High Court of Australia over twenty years ago requires that any law burdening political communication must be reasonably appropriate and adapted to advancing a legitimate object. A law that bans anybody behind a polling booth BBQ from exchanging politically flavoured niceties with punters who are waiting for their sausage to cook, and that bans certain people from reaching for their BBQ tongs entirely is overkill, and constitutionally suspect.
Taking the democracy out of the democracy sausage in the Northern Territory is most likely unconstitutional but, more importantly, it is most definitely un-Australian.