7 August 2023

Odd jobs: Parliament's Hansard reporters 'learn about 20 different topics in a day'

| James Coleman
Hansard reporters

Hansard reporters Alex Popple (L) and Ashley Oakes (R) at Parliament House. Photo: James Coleman.

From where they sit, they get a perfectly framed view right up the large skylights in the House of Representatives and Senate chambers.

Hansard reporters are either inside the very beating heart of democracy, or located in a wood-and-leather colosseum arena, depending on your view of Australia’s Parliament House. Either way, they’re assigned a very important job – transcribing every word that’s uttered.

Or, as the mission goes, “provide an accurate, substantially verbatim account of the proceedings of the parliament and its committees which, while usually correcting obvious mistakes, neither adds to nor detracts from the meaning of the speech or the illustration of the argument”.

Ashley Oakes and Alex Popple are among a team of 45 Hansard reporters at Parliament House, and while it’s not always as dramatic as news clips from question time might suggest, they describe it as a very rewarding job on the whole.

“There are times when it’s just a job and there are times when it is truly stimulating and the building is buzzing – there’s a leadership challenge underway and everyone is wondering what’s going to happen – you can really feel the excitement,” Ashley says.

READ ALSO Odd jobs: setting up proposals for Canberra couples often has Corinne ‘all shaky and teary’

“There are bits that are exciting to me that don’t make the news, like some of the committee inquiry topics are really interesting,” Alex adds.

“Little topics like how we’re going with the space industry. The practical part of doing the work, sitting down at your desk, picking up recordings and transcribing it – that’s the same every day – but the content is different. We could learn about 20 different topics in a day.”

Alex was coaxed into it by a friend at university who barged into the study room one day and announced how she’d just “got the best job” and Alex should join her. This was in 2013, when she was studying archaeology and classics.

Ashley joined when he was 34 and “needed a job”. It also appealed to his background in English literature and history, and “I had a friend there”.

Nearly 20 years later, he’s in charge of recruiting and says those with a literary interest hold the best skillset. “It’s a job for wordsmiths,” he said.

House of Representatives

The Hansard reporters sit at the two-seat desk at the front – right underneath the skylight. Photo: James Coleman.

Decades ago, at least one Hansard reporter was required to be in the room at all times, taking written notes in the near-ancient art of shorthand. They would then dictate these to the typist, who would create a ‘term’, or a transcribed segment of five to 10 minutes of audio.

“These days, everything’s being recorded digitally, so the Hansard editor isn’t needed in the chamber to record what’s going on as well,” Ashley says.

“Broadcasting makes the tapes and we can listen back and transcribe from those recordings.”

However, because nobody can type as fast as a person can speak without causing major workplace health and safety issues, the work is assisted by more technology in the form of voice recognition and automated speech-to-text software.

“The proceedings of the chambers and many of the committees are also live captioned, and we have access to that text as a first draft,” Ashley says.

“It’s often useful, sometimes not.”

READ ALSO Odd jobs: digging for truffles takes five dogs and a lot of treats

Parliament can have up to 70 committee inquiries going at any one time, ranging in topics from food security and sexual consent laws to the governance of Norfolk Island and Australia’s road network. Hansard reporters have to have some idea of what the politicians are on about.

“Comprehension is critical,” Ashley says.

“The ability to quickly make sense of what an expert on some subject is saying, while on their phone from Perth, with bad sound. You’ve got to turn that into a readable useful script, while being faithful to what they’re saying.”

From the time proceedings wrap up, Hansard reporters have a day to get the transcript up on the Parliament House website, which Ashley says is dramatically down on the six weeks their predecessors had.

“So if you made a speech in the chamber, a couple of hours later, you’d be able to access that speech on our site,” he said.

Both Alex and Ashley agree it’s a job for someone with an eye for detail and who “likes finding little mistakes and fixing them”.

“It is very rewarding though,” Ashley says.

Original Article published by James Coleman on Riotact.

Weekly Wrap

Canberra is renowned for its restaurants, bars, arts and culture. If you want to know what's going on in and around the nation's capital, sign up for our weekly newsletter and have all the best of the Canberra community delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.