‘barbecue stopper’: meaning and origin

The Australian-English phrase barbecue stopper denotes a controversial current-affairs topic.

The image is that such a topic is likely to interrupt a barbecue with loud debate.

The phrase barbecue stopper was coined in 2001 by the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard (born 1939), during his re-election campaign, in the context of balancing work pressures with family responsibilities—these are the earliest occurrences of the phrase that I have found:

1-: From Man on a mission, by Jennifer Hewett, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 27th October 2001:

Tomorrow in Sydney, Howard will officially launch the Liberal campaign. Expect a strong performance. It will be a crucial psychological boost to a party that started off looking invincible but is now enduring the slow, steady creep-back of Beazley *. Howard will certainly need to be more persuasive, more engaging than he was in the [televised] debate. He’ll need to embrace “the future” with enthusiasm.
That’s one reason he will talk about improving the balance between work and family, a topic he describes as a “barbecue stopper” because it engenders so much conversation whenever people get together. He knows it’s now time to remind everyone he has policies on the domestic issues that Beazley is pushing so hard, rather than just the war on terrorism and whether another boatload of refugees can be sent anywhere but here.

* Kim Beazley (born 1948) was then the Leader of the Opposition as Leader of the Australian Labor Party.

2-: From Extra sizzle as PM throws baby tax break on the barbie, by Jennifer Hewett, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Monday 29th October 2001:

Snap. That’s the sound of the stretch between family and work for an awful lot of parents. John Howard says the balancing act between the two is the most common discussion at any neighbourhood barbecue. A “barbecue-stopper”, he likes to call it. That’s why he is attempting to put the extra sizzle into his election campaign with a new tax break for women having children.

The phrase barbecue stopper soon came to denote any topic of great public interest. The earliest occurrences that I have found are:

1-: From Federal Cabinet discussing the problem of housing affordability, a PM programme broadcast on ABC Radio National on Tuesday 29th July 2003:

MARK COLVIN: Is housing affordability the new barbeque stopper? After yesterday’s figures confirming that housing prices are getting further and further out of many people’s reach, moves are gathering pace to set up an inquiry into the issue.

2-: From Little interest shown in Constitutional debate, an AM programme broadcast on ABC Radio National on Wednesday 3rd December 2003:

DAVID HARDAKER: The reform of Australia’s Senate—it mightn’t be one of the Prime Minister’s so-called barbecue stoppers, but it has been nominated by Mr Howard as one of his key goals in government.

3-: From Australians reflect on the past year, an AM programme broadcast on ABC Radio National on Wednesday 31st December 2003:

DAVID HARDAKER: And finally to the year that was. Over the past week AM’s reporters have got out and about and spoken to Australians about some of those so-called barbeque stoppers, as the Prime Minister calls them—the issues that we’ve been discussing over the past 12 months. So what do we talk about while the snags sizzle on the hotplate?
(Sound of BBQ and champagne cork popping)
VOX POP 1: I’ll never ever be disappointed about Australia. Maybe the loss of identity, to a certain extent, the multiculturalism—we’re losing a lot of our old sayings and slangs and way of life, but where you lose on one…
VOX POP 2: Hi, I’m Scott Oxford, and I’m from Wynnum West in Brisbane today. I’m disappointed by the fact that this country still continues to treat our minority groups in the way that we do.
[&c.]