The work of Victoria's Hansard team is history in the making.
AT THE START of each sitting week there’s an unmistakable buzz around Parliament House, as the players assemble and support teams prepare to raise the curtain on our age-old system of parliamentary democracy.
Behind the scenes, or more specifically in the basement, there is a similar sense of anticipation amongst the Hansard team that gathers for their regular briefing before heading into the chambers.
“It can feel like a piece of theatre," says Rachael Dewar, a Hansard reporter since 2010. “It’s also a bit like the start of a race. We come together at 11:30 am for our pep talk, when we’re briefed on what we can expect in the week ahead, and there’s a great team spirit.”
The starting pistol for this race fires at noon on Tuesday. It’s less of a sprint and more of a long-distance relay as Rachael describes it, with a line-up of reporters and editors settling into a steady pace for three days of parliamentary debates.
“There’s very much a rhythm to our day,” says Rachael. “Each section of text we transcribe is called a ‘turn’, which begins with 10 minutes in the chamber, then we head back to our desk to transcribe. Ninety minutes later, we’re back in the chamber.
“Often you don’t realise it’s become dark outside, you’re just churning away at your computer. But there’s a great feeling of camaraderie, especially on late sitting nights when we’re working till midnight or two in the morning, and everyone is bleary-eyed and drinking coffee by the gallon.”
Transcribing 10 minutes of spoken word into meaningful and usable text is a complex process. The extent to which they differ can be surprising, which is where the skill of a good Hansard reporter comes into play.
To assist them in this task, the Hansard team has employed a range of technologies over its 150-year history. Long gone is the art of shorthand taken in pen and ink. Even the stenotype machine has had its day - that slightly unfathomable relative of the typewriter, familiar to lovers of TV courtroom dramas. Today’s Hansard reporters work with audio recordings and dictation software to produce the raw text of their transcription. And in many ways, this is where the real work begins.
“It can be very frustrating,” confesses Rachael. “It's like unsnarling a knotted ball of wool sometimes; working a tangled debate into a coherent and grammatically correct bit of dialogue that is going to go into the annals of history. But once you've achieved it, once you've finished, it's enormously satisfying.”
Armed with pages of notes from her 10 minutes in the chamber, Rachael deftly navigates her way through repeated interjections and smooths stumbling repetitions. As uncertainties arise, she dives into a process of fact-checking to confirm dates, names, places and references to legislation, which can be where the majority of her time is spent.
“It’s one of the things I love most about the role,” she says. “Because I’m required to transcribe and research such a wide variety of subjects, every week I end up learning something new.
“I really enjoy it when members give speeches about things that are going on in their electorates, like events, festivals or new tourist attractions that are opening, because I've learned a lot about Victoria that I wouldn’t have known.”
Reports from the first decade of the Victorian Parliament were produced by journalists from The Argus newspaper. Browse through these early editions and you’ll find a much more colourful narrative (by today’s standards) used to describe the proceedings between members’ speeches.
Following persistent concerns about accuracy and accountability, however, the Victorian Parliament established its own Hansard service, which began reporting in 1866 and continues to this day. From an initial team of three, the Hansard team is now made up of almost 50 reporters, editors, broadcasting and audiovisual staff. They cover proceedings in the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, as well as parliamentary committee hearings.
In the past, Hansard was a heavily edited report. These days a lighter editorial touch is preferred, with the final text more closely mirroring actual proceedings in the chambers. Keeping a close eye on the accuracy and consistency of each new draft is John Nugent, a veteran of Victoria’s Hansard team, having joined as a reporter in 1990. Today he serves as editor of debates in the Legislative Assembly.
“It’s important that we preserve, as much as possible, both the words and the flavour of a member’s speech,” he explains. “We have an editorial policy and a style guide and sometimes a member’s speech doesn’t fit into those guidelines, so there's a constant tension, and we have to think very carefully about any changes we make.
“A good example of the sort of thing that sometimes makes me chuckle, and an example of why we need to edit, is that we once had a health minister who stood up in the Assembly in Question Time and said, ‘We have eliminated all cancer patients.’ And we get mixed metaphors too. Members will say things like, 'We’ll burn those bridges when we come to them.’”
With more than 25 years in the job, John is a keen observer of the political process, but he gives a wide berth to the politics of the day. Impartiality, he explains, is a cornerstone of the Hansard report.
“People jokingly, but probably half seriously, suggest that political beliefs will influence what goes into the report, which is totally incorrect. Apart from anything else, with the checks and balances that exist, it wouldn't matter how biased a person was, they couldn't really have that kind of influence.
“We’re here to make sure it's grammatically correct, that it's accurate and that it will serve whoever uses the document.”
Hansard is often referred to by members of the judiciary, to help interpret legislation. Commercial organisations and peak bodies will also use it to keep up with current decisions.
Of course, any member of the public can access Hansard - the need for transparency and accountability in our representative democracy is its reason for being.
As part of ongoing efforts to expand access and ensure transparency, and following the introduction of audio webstreaming in 2006, Hansard’s broadcast team was established in 2010 to provide live video streaming services. These services are made available through Parliament’s website. More recently, Hansard Broadcasting has begun producing news and information videos to foster broader community engagement with the issues being considered by parliamentary committees.
In addition to their functional role, Hansard reports also serve as a time-capsule of our State’s political and social history. In the very first pages from 1856 we can follow along as the newly-established Legislative Assembly struggled with issues of protocol and debated whether it was proper that the first Speaker should be presented to the Governor, the Queen’s representative in the Colony.
Jump forward to the opening pages of 2016 and the history books now tell of the current Speaker welcoming Victoria’s Aboriginal leaders to the chamber to observe an Acknowledgement of Country that pays respect to our State’s Traditional Owners. This acknowledgement now takes place at the start of each sitting week in both Houses.
While browsing through that first dusty volume of Hansard, as debate continues in the 58th Parliament, it’s interesting to note some of the common themes that persist. This year, our representatives in Parliament have been considering the issue of level crossings in our rail network and the privatisation of our ports, and the Premier has made formal statements to the House regarding the treatment of asylum seekers.
In the earliest days of the Colony we can read about members discussing the extension of railways to connect growing population centres. There were disputes about the division of Crown Land, and in petitions and speeches we can trace public sentiment in relation to the establishment of a comprehensive system of immigration.
Far left: Howard Willoughby was one of the first reporters to join Hansard, having reported on parliamentary debates for The Argus newspaper.
Left: In 1970, the appointment of the first female Hansard reporter, Joyce Bates, caused quite a stir.
Above: The first known photograph of a Hansard reporter at work in the Legislative Assembly. Pictured is Earnest Scott, right of the table, in 1908.
Thumbing through the yellowed pages of a 150-year-old, leather-bound volume, it’s interesting to imagine how the members of that day would react to the concept of Hansard as a downloadable PDF. Even more baffling than the technologies at play would be the contemporary content, including notices that deal with access to medical cannabis, assisted reproductive treatment and amendments to the Relationships Act that provide formal recognition of same-sex couples.
Like today, the members of our first Parliament were wrestling with the decisions that would define the character of a society and the prosperity of its people. Hansard allows us to dig into the nuance of these debates, to understand the progress that has been made and to consider the issues that remain.
One hundred and fifty years from now, we don’t know how historians will come to learn about our current political landscape. With the emergence of Hansard’s online broadcast service, perhaps they’ll rifle through some future incarnation of YouTube or trawl social media archives.
For now, a hard-working team of reporters and editors continue to toil away behind the scenes. With meticulous attention to detail, they’re preparing the next edition of Hansard, which will take its place amongst the ever-expanding shelves of neatly stacked red and green volumes that line the walls of Parliament House.