7 Aug 2022

Words galore - the work of Hansard

From The House , 7:35 am on 7 August 2022

Did you ever wonder who has the job of recording everything that’s said in Parliament - all the great speeches, the bombastic drivel, repetitive questions, petty interjections.

They’re called the Hansard team - Hansard being the traditional name of the transcripts of parliamentary debates in various Commonwealth countries including New Zealand. It’s more than just transcribing what is said in the chamber.

Hansard editor Julia Humphries at work in Parliament's debating chamber.

Hansard editor Julia Humphries at work in Parliament's debating chamber. Photo: Johnny Blades / VNP

Hansard are responsible for publishing the official record of parliament on the website and publishing the book of Hansard volumes for the public to see. They also transcribe select committees, reports from hearings on budget estimates and annual reviews, as well as some press conferences, and among other stuff they help out where they can with other offices of the Clerk.

Increasingly, the Hansard team has become a vital conduit for engaging the public with what’s going on in parliament, for example the debate summaries they’ve produced in recent years. Hansard do the hard work so that we don’t have to. Listening to and noting everything requires a good degree of concentration.

“By and large it has a nice rhythm to it, and it’s interesting,” Hansard editor Andrea O’Brien says.

"You get to hear a lot of information about legislation  that’s going through that you might not come access otherwise, and generally what’s happening.”

It’s a job where you get a good handle on the pressing issues of the day, because you’re hearing them being fleshed out in detail.

“Even down to the detailed legal arguments, particularly in the Committee of the whole House where small clauses in bills will be changed, or even healing members at the second reading discuss why the select committee that the legislation went to decided to change it."

Hansard editor Luke Harris

Hansard editor Luke Harris Photo: Johnny Blades / VNP

Each sitting day, a team of three from the Hansard team take turns to go into the chamber for an hour at a time to monitor what’s going on. In there they must be kind of invisible: like immovable rocks despite the dynamic elements around them.

It takes a certain skill to concentrate on who said what and where the process is at while remaining impervious to the vigorous theatre of Question Time that you're in the middle of.

“It can be quite funny, there can be quite a lot of humour involved,” explains Luke Harris, another Hansard editor.

“Some of the interjections can be quite humorous and as members of the staff we remain completely neutral so we don't have any affiliation with any party. So we have to learn to have a bit of a poker face, and that can be quite challenging because we're only human, and sometimes someone says something that's actually quite witty and I've had to bite the inside of my cheek before to stop myself from smiling.”

“Sometimes it feels like you’re being watched, but most of the time you just try to be as invisible as you can, because it’s really important that we can see who is there, because we can’t always tell who is talking clearly from audio,” O’Brien adds.

"So we have to know, particularly for interjections, who is there. Some members will look at us as they're talking, some members will not look at us at all. Some members walk past and say hello, some don't. We don't mind either way."


The Hansard game has changed over the years, as digital avenues have opened up.

“As the voice-to-text software, the transcription software, became available we started trialling that, and it was really really quite bad to begin with. It was quite hilarious some of the things they would come up with,” Harris laughs.

“So to begin with it wasn't actually didn't save any time because she spend as much time fixing up all the errors as he did the typing it yourself. But it has improved so much in the last few years you can almost week by week see how their the software developers are refining the algorithms, and now you can get a piece of text which is 80 to 90 percent there, and then you just go through and fix up the mistakes, and it takes all the grunt work out of typing.”

Early Hansard volumes

Early Hansard volumes Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

New Zealand’s Hansard team is a bit different to Hansard teams in other parts of the world in that it strives to record what is said in parliament verbatim. 

“But we still need it to be able to be read and understood on paper,” O’Brien says.

“So you can listen to someone speak and it makes perfect sense at the time, but if you read what they’ve said you’ve got no idea what they’re talking about. So we have to perfectly choose our punctuation for some members - all members really - but particularly for some members who don’t finish sentences and then go on to another train of thought - which is totally fine - but we need to be careful how we do it, so that it can be legible. That’s why we’re big fans of the Oxford comma.”

There’s something admirable about a team working diligently for clarity and readability.

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