DEMOCRACY SAUSAGES WILL be sizzling all over the nation tomorrow as the country heads to the polls to vote on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The democracy sausage has become a much cherished institution, usually on election days, but also tomorrow, and is held up as a symbol of unity and community during what are inherently divisive events—we may disagree on who should lead the nation, or whether our First people should receive Constitutional recognition, but one thing we can agree on is that a sausage in some white bread, with a little burnt onion and a squirt of tomato sauce tastes great—Bunnings realised the power of a sizzling hotplate years ago and use it to cloak commerce in a veneer of communal cheeriness.
But the democracy sausage’s power to pull us together only goes so far. In truth, an election, or less commonly, a referendum, is one of the few days when Australians come out of our cloistered ideological bubbles and abandon our social-media echo chambers and stand face to face with those who may hold views that differ from our own. Even then, we don’t really engage with the other side. Your vote is anonymous, and given many of us live in safe seats, you are likely enjoying your democracy sausage with fellow ideological travellers.
In my inner Sydney polling booth, where the vast majority of us vote Green or Labor, for example, I can safely look at my fellow constituents and know that most of them will be voting Yes tomorrow. The sausage still tastes great but I have not really broken out of my bubble.
In fact, I rarely do and chances are that unless you reside on the political fringes and attend rallies where you might run into opposing radicals from the right or left and possibly engage in violent street clashes, you are mostly able to keep your particular bubble intact.
I can recall two instances in the last twenty years where I have sat down with someone on the other side of the ideological fence and traded shots. One was on a trip to New Zealand where I enjoyed an afternoon of mountain biking with a group of other tourists. None of us knew each other but we bonded over the thrills and spills of an afternoon hurtling down tumbling terrain.
Afterwards, myself and another Aussie, let’s call him Carmichael, decided to have dinner together and then hit a local pub. The evening rolled along pleasantly enough until somewhere around our third beer our conversation began to encounter previously hidden booby traps. It turned out Carmichael was a passionate supporter of Tony Abbott. I, equally passionately, was not. Suddenly our easy conversation became awkward and stilted before getting a little heated. Neither of us really listened to what the other was saying. Carmichael was implacable. I was immovable. We finished our drinks and said a curt goodbye, a pleasant evening with a stranger ruined because we’d left the safe shores of sport and pop culture and instead run aground by choosing to talk politics. What brought us together—our afternoon of mountain biking—was not enough to withstand the traps and trip wires inherent in political discussion.
When I look back on the evening now, I still feel a little tightening in my chest. I feel frustration that I couldn’t persuade my opponent of my view, even though I refused to hear his. My bubble had been penetrated and it hadn’t been pleasant. It felt like two keyboard warriors had tried to engage in a physical rock fight. I was happy to retreat back to my progressive inner-city sanctum.
The evening with Carmichael stood as my last encounter with an ideological adversary from outside of my bubble until last weekend, when I went to an event with my brother-in-law. We have known each other for nearly 10 years, get along well and like and respect each other. At family gatherings, we talk mostly about safe subjects such as work, our kids, sport and travel, but I knew from occasional fragments of conversation here and there, that we were probably not politically aligned. I suspect he knew it, too.
Sure enough, away from the rest of the family and getting drunk together for the first time, we allowed some of the views we normally hold tight to our chest at family gatherings to spill out. We talked about the Voice. I am a blithely unquestioning Yes voter. It just feels right, which makes me the kind of person those on the right might accuse of not doing any research or being a “sheeple”.
My brother-in-law is more conservative by nature, so is always likely to meet change with more resistance. He admitted he hadn’t made up his mind, wanted more detail and predicted, probably accurately, that the referendum would fail because “most people (from his bubble) I’ve spoken to don’t know what it involves”. I countered that that’s not a good enough reason, do your research and cited Senator Adam Brigg’s viral ad. I said it’s just an advisory board, to which he then asked “who’s going to be on that board. How are they elected?” Which I couldn’t answer, though, I said there are already plenty of boards that advise parliament and we don’t worry about who’s on those. I also said referendums are not the same as voting on legislation, which is why there isn’t a great deal of detail. It’s a simple yes or no question. Do you support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament?
On this occasion, the interaction was civil and the discussion respectful. Even though I disagreed with a lot of what he said, I did respect his questioning attitude and desire to scrutinise what’s being proposed and reflected that my own unquestioning attitude is perhaps a luxury born out of the fact that on this occasion the Voice so neatly aligns with my naturally progressive views.
Perhaps, I should scrutinise and interrogate my views a little more, if for no other reason than to equip myself to more confidently engage with ideological opponents—though, given I’ve had two alcohol-fuelled encounters in 20 years, any knowledge, insight or rhetorical hand grenades that I may stockpile will largely be used to impress those in my bubble at dinner parties or just sit idle in my intellectual garage like a billionaire’s Bugatti.
Rather than the crude ideological face-slapping contest that had occurred with Carmichael, this was more of a conversational chess match (though the phrase ‘woke left elites’ was used ironically), which inevitably finished at a stalemate. Our bubbles merged but did not break. We managed to escape unscathed.
Reflecting on it now, it was perhaps a useful conversation to have had ahead of the referendum tomorrow. For when I bite into my democracy sausage after casting my vote with the rest of ‘my people’, I will enjoy it as the tasty symbol of democracy that it is while doing my best to ignore the feeling that come Sunday morning, there’s a chance I may not like the result of what happens when our views are laid bare and bubbles get burst at the ballot box.