Words Galore: The Work of Hansard
Have you ever wondered who has the job of recording everything that is said in Parliament – all the grand speeches, the bombastic ramblings, the repetitive questions, the petty interjections.
They call themselves the Hansard team – Hansard being the traditional name for transcripts of parliamentary proceedings in various Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand. It’s more than just transcribing what’s being said in the bedroom.
Hansard is responsible for publishing the official record of Parliament on the website and publishing the book of Hansard volumes for the public to view. They also transcribe special committees, reports of hearings on estimates and annual reviews, as well as some press conferences, and among other things, they help where they can with other clerk’s offices.
Increasingly, the Hansard team has become a key channel for involving the public in what happens in Parliament, for example the summaries of debates they have produced in recent years. Hansard does the heavy lifting so we don’t have to. Listening to everything and writing everything down requires good concentration.
“Overall, the pacing is nice and it’s interesting,” says Andrea O’Brien, Hansard’s editor.
“You hear a lot of information about current legislation that you might not otherwise have access to, and generally about what’s going on.”
It’s a job where you get a good handle on the pressing issues of the day, because you hear them fleshed out in detail.
“Even down to the detailed legal arguments, especially in committee of the whole where small clauses of bills will be changed, or even healer members at second reading discuss why the select committee to which the legislation was put decided to change it.”
Each sitting day, a team of three members of the Hansard team take turns visiting the Chamber for an hour at a time to monitor what is going on. In there, they must be a little invisible: like motionless rocks despite the dynamic elements that surround them.
It takes some skill to focus on who said what and where the process is at while remaining oblivious to the vigorous Question Time theater you find yourself in.
“It can be quite funny, it can be a lot of humor,” says Luke Harris, another Hansard editor.
“Some of the interjections can be quite humorous and as staff we remain completely neutral so we have no affiliation with any party. So we have to learn to have a bit of a poker face, and that can be quite difficult because we’re only human, and sometimes someone says something that’s actually quite witty and I had to bite the inside of my cheek before I stopped myself from smiling.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re being watched, but most of the time you’re just trying to be as invisible as possible because it’s really important that we can see who’s there because we can’t always tell. that speaks clearly to the audio,” adds O’Brien.
“So we need to know, especially for interjections, who’s there. Some members will look at us while they’re talking, some members won’t look at us at all. Some members walk past and say hello, some don’t. don’t bother us anyway.”
The Hansard game has changed over the years as digital avenues have opened up.
“When the text-to-speech software, the transcription software, became available, we started testing it, and it was really, really bad initially. It was pretty hilarious some of the things they were offering,” laughs Harris .
“So to start with, it didn’t save time because she spends as much time correcting all the mistakes as he did typing it himself. But he’s improved so much over the last few years. years you can see almost week after week how their software developers are refining the algorithms, and now you can get a piece of text that’s 80-90%, and then you just go through and fix the errors, and that eliminates everything tedious typing work.
The New Zealand Hansard team is a little different from Hansard teams in other parts of the world in that they strive to record verbatim what is said in Parliament.
“But we still need it so it can be read and understood on paper,” says O’Brien.
“So you can listen to someone talk and it makes perfect sense at the time, but if you read what he said you have no idea what he’s talking about. So we have to choose our punctuation for some members – all members in fact – but especially for some members who don’t finish their sentences and then move on to another stream of thought – which is fine – but we have to be careful how we make it readable.That’s why we’re big fans of the Oxford Comma.
There is something admirable about a team working diligently for clarity and readability.