On the record: Parliament's Hansard turns 150

by Sharon Stephenson / 19 August, 2017

Parliamentary historian John Martin in the library reading room, originally built in the 1880s as a lobby. MPs would dine at Bellamy’s restaurant through the archway (at right), which now leads to the library’s reference room.

For the past 150 years, every word spoken in Parliament’s debating chamber has gone down in history.

Clark Barron isn’t happy. Brows knitted, he stares gloomily from a sepia photo hanging in Wellington’s Parliament House.  Barron clearly didn’t have that much to smile about: not only did the newspaper journalist face a long struggle to establish New Zealand’s Hansard service in 1867, he had to fight for its survival for almost 30 years. “Barron’s reward was to be forcibly retired from his role of chief reporter by Prime Minister [Richard] Seddon in 1896,” says parliamentary historian and author John Martin.

Barron would probably have smiled more had he known that Hansard, as it’s commonly called, will mark its 150th anniversary in July.

The official record of debate in the House of Representatives, it was historically produced by editors in the debating chamber who took down every word spoken by MPs. “This free and independent reporting is an important form of accountability, and is critical for an open and democratic government,” Martin says.

Hansard takes its name from Thomas Curson Hansard, an early publisher of parliamentary debates in the UK. A similar system of reporting was mooted here shortly after New Zealand’s first Parliament was established in Auckland, in 1854. “At that time, the only way people knew about what was going on in Parliament was via newspapers. However, the problem was that most of the newspapers were owned by politicians, so there was no separation of press and politics.”

An early trial to find a more objective method of recording debates wasn’t successful but, given the turbulent events of the time – including the Land Wars – the pressure was on to try again. Two years after Parliament moved to the new capital, Wellington, in 1865, Barron and five staff were recruited, all reporters with a shorthand speed of around 150-200 words a minute. All were men, a situation that remained in place until 1962 because women were considered “not temperamentally or physically suited to working long hours”.

“Back then, Parliament sat until two or three in the morning, sometimes all night, and it wasn’t considered appropriate to employ women after dark,” explains Martin.

Instead, female staff were relegated to the typing pool, where they transcribed Hansard reporters’ notes, which were sent to MPs to check before being published in hard-copy volumes (today, they’re also available in digital form on the Parliamentary website).

Bound volumes of Hansard records dating from the late 1860s line the walls of the Parliamentary Library.

Around eight bound volumes are produced each year and a total of 716 volumes – ranging from the very first report in 1867 through to the end of last year – line the walls of the Parliamentary Library. Martin knows them well: he once read 600 volumes to research his book about the history of Parliament, The House, published in 2004.

Technology has changed the way Hansard reporters work, with audio recordings introduced in the 90s. “Fast shorthand writers were a dying breed, so instead Hansard staff began to transcribe proceedings from audio recordings.”

Today, around 24 Hansard reporters do just that, producing near-verbatim transcripts, as well as checking references, correcting grammar and generally ensuring the copy flows well. One staff member is, however, always in the debating chamber to record interjections not picked up by the audio. Over the years, these records have proved invaluable on several occasions: to confirm MPs’ statements in the House, and as evidence in defamation cases.

There are a range of events to celebrate Hansard’s 150th anniversary (for more details, visit www.parliament.nz). Mr Barron would no doubt be pleased.

This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.


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