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Reporting the Parliament: Early Victorian Hansard

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Heritage Note No. 1, February 2016

Reporting the Parliament:

Early Victorian Hansard

The Parliament of Victoria publishes the official record of its parliamentary debates, which is known as Hansard. It is named after the Hansard family, which had a long association with the publishing and printing of British parliamentary reports during the nineteenth century.[footnote 1] The reporting of the early Victorian Parliament was initially carried out by the Melbourne newspapers, most notably The Argus. The arrangement continued for nearly ten years until 1866, when the Victorian Parliament employed its own shorthand reporters to take over the role of producing the official Hansard.


The Argus years

When the Parliament of Victoria first met on 21 November 1856, its debates and proceedings were reported by The Argus newspaper. It was not long before the proprietors of The Argus started to extract the reports of parliamentary speeches from the newspapers and reprint them in volumes called the Victorian Hansard. The stated aim was to ensure that the 'inauguration of the new Constitution and the proceedings of the Legislature … might have a more permanent and enlarged record than the newspaper reports supply.' In the preface to the first printed volume of the Victorian Hansard the Editor also acknowledged the 'very considerable' expense involved.[footnote 2] Indeed, questions surrounding the cost and the accuracy of Hansard arose many times during the early years of the Victorian Parliament.

Complaints about the quality of the newspaper reports surfaced within a month of Parliament commencing, with Members of Parliament questioning the accuracy and impartiality of The Argus reports. On 17 December 1856, Dr Greeves, the Member for East Bourke, called for the Library Committee to report on the best means to obtain a correct account of the debates. The motion was seconded by Mr Duffy, the Member
for Villiers and Heytesbury, saying that the errors were not merely the result of haste and carelessness, but a 'wilful suppression of the truth'.[footnote 3] The Argus Editors responded, saying Mr Duffy was complaining because his speeches were not reported as fully as he thought they merited. While acknowledging the difficulties of their task, The Argus Editors said it was their 'sincere desire' to present an accurate and fair report of the proceedings of both Houses of the Legislature.[footnote 4] Despite the motion being carried, there is no record of the Library Committee reporting on the Hansard issue at the time.

The other major Melbourne newspaper, The Age, monitored Parliament's Hansard arrangements closely and drew attention to errors and omissions in the parliamentary reporting. It remarked that 'abridgment is a virtue; but suppression belongs to a different category'.[footnote 5] Unless the style of reporting improved, The Age did not think the Parliament would accord The Argus very extensive patronage.[footnote 6] The Editor of Hansard wrote a letter to The Argus to refute The Age's accusations, declaring that Hansard reporting was 'influenced by neither fear, favour, nor prejudice'.[footnote 7]

An anonymous member of the public joined in the newspaper correspondence and commented that the Victorian Hansard was improved by the use of abridgment and 'judicious pruning' of speeches.[footnote 8] They claimed that what the readers wanted was 'substantial and material fidelity', not lengthy verbatim reports. Six months later, an Argus writer took Members of Parliament to task for the 'thin stream of dilute verbiage' that comprised their speeches, accusing speakers of suffering from a 'redundancy of words and a paucity of ideas'. The Argus writer advised Members that the winning formula was to use 'a few terse weighty words … travelling directly to the purpose' and 'having said what you had to say, sit down'.[footnote 9]

By 1860, The Argus was finding the production of Victorian Hansard to be prohibitively expensive. On 18 April 1860, Mr Heales, the Member for East Bourke Boroughs, moved for the appointment of a Select Committee to 'consider and report on the best method for securing an accurate report of the proceedings of Parliament', in the form of a Hansard. In moving the motion Mr Heales said the proprietors of The Argus had found the publication of the Victorian Hansard to be a 'very unprofitable' venture and, unless some assistance was given, the publication would be discontinued.[footnote 10] Mr Heales hoped the Select Committee would decide whether a fair record of proceedings could be produced and supported by a subsidy from the legislature, as was the case in South Australia.[footnote 11]

The Select Committee members proceeded with the inquiry, examining several witnesses over a number of days. The witnesses included: Mr William Fairfax, appearing as one of the three proprietors of The Argus; Mr John Paterson, who was The Argus Sub-Editor in charge of the reporting staff; Mr George Webb, the Government Shorthand Writer; and Mr David Syme, the proprietor of The Age.[footnote 12] Alternative schemes for organising the production of Hansard were proposed during the inquiry. When asked about his costs, Mr Fairfax said that the total expense over three years had been £1,245, sustaining a loss of more than £535. For the third session of Parliament, The Argus had 50 subscribers to Victorian Hansard (at £9 6s. each), 37 of whom were Members of Parliament.[footnote 13]

When the Select Committee's report was tabled on 8 June 1860, it recommended that an arrangement be made with Mr Fairfax of The Argus for a guaranteed sum of £600 in return for 150 copies of the printed Hansard. After some lively debate, including assurances from Mr Heales that the editorial and reporting staff of The Argus worked quite separately,[footnote 14] the House finally agreed with the recommendation of the Select Committee by a margin of one vote.[footnote 15] Parliament then began to provide funds to The Argus to ensure the ongoing production of Victorian Hansard.

Concerns about the accuracy and completeness of Hansard, however, continued. On 23 June 1865, Mr Casey, the Member for Mandurang (and a former newspaper proprietor), moved in the Assembly that 'provision should be made to secure an accurate report of the debates in Parliament, in the form of Hansard.' He claimed his concern stemmed from ongoing complaints about inaccuracy and The Argus' habit of curtailing reports on public Bills and other matters of public interest. Mr Casey revisited the plans put before the Select Committee in 1860, especially the scheme outlined by the Government Shorthand Writer, Mr Webb, to engage a staff of 'government reporters'. In the ensuing debate, some Members accepted the merits of a scheme that would remove any lingering doubts about political bias from the reporting. Mr Casey's motion was supported.[footnote 16]

Less than a week later, Mr Verdon, the Member for Williamstown, said the Government had recently 'received an offer from competent persons' with regard to establishing a new Hansard. He said the Government was satisfied that these reporters could provide a good account of parliamentary proceedings for £2,500 a year, inclusive of printing. Mr Verdon proposed that the new reporting arrangements should commence with the next session of Parliament and the funding was subsequently agreed.[footnote 17]

Three members of the reporting staff from The Argus were employed by the Parliament from
1 January 1866 to establish the new Hansard service. They were Mr Thomas Hadley, Mr William Robinson and Mr Howard Willoughby. The three men were given a farewell dinner by their former employer at Scott's Hotel in Collins Street. One of The Argus proprietors, Mr Lauchlan Mackinnon, expressed regret at losing such able and faithful reporters, but added he was pleased that The Argus would no longer be burdened by the production of Hansard.[footnote 18] Since 1856, The Argus had produced 11 volumes of the Victorian Hansard.

Parliament's own Hansard begins

The opening of the fifth Victorian Parliament on 12 February 1866 marked the official start of the Colony's new parliamentary Hansard service. The reporters' gallery had been slightly altered to accommodate the Hansard reporting staff, with a special box provided for them on the opposite side of the old gallery.[footnote 19] The Age made reference to the long standing problem of poor acoustics in the Assembly chamber, noting a new experiment which raised the backs of some seats to try to arrest the sound.[footnote 20] It would be another 20 years before a dedicated area on the floor of the Assembly chamber, at the table beside the opposition benches, was made available to the Hansard reporters.[footnote 21]

Although not able to provide complete coverage with so few staff, the new reports were more extensive than the earlier newspaper accounts.[footnote 22] The three reporters, all expert shorthand writers, worked long hours. They were kept busy taking and transcribing shorthand (rotating through 45 minute turns in the gallery while the Houses were in session) and revising their own and each other's proofs (draft versions).[footnote 23] Copy was then sent on to the Government Printing Office for printed proofs, which were revised again as required. Members were able to request to see a proof copy of their speeches, but surprisingly few requests were made. The weekly edition of Hansard was then published every Tuesday evening.[footnote 24]

Each of the founding Hansard reporters had long careers, maintaining strong connections with either Parliament or the press. Mr Thomas Hadley stayed at Parliament and was recognised as the first Chief Reporter of Hansard, working until his retirement in 1890.[footnote 25] Mr Howard Willoughby worked in Hansard until 1869, when he became the first Editor of the Melbourne Daily Telegraph. In 1877 he returned to The Argus as head of the news department and lead writer, finally becoming Editor of The Argus in 1898.[footnote 26] Mr William Robinson was the last of the three to retire, staying on in Hansard until 1880 when he became Clerk Assistant of the Legislative Assembly. He succeeded Sir George Jenkins as Clerk of the Legislative Assembly in 1891, a position he held until 1902.[footnote 27]

Mr Robinson, one of the original reporters, is said to have once told a new Member that the purpose of the Parliamentary Debates is 'to preserve the idiom of Parliament, but not the idiots.'[footnote 28] Modern Hansard is not a verbatim transcript of what is said in Parliament, but it is an accurate report of speeches 'with repetitions and redundancies omitted and with obvious mistakes corrected'.[footnote 29] The Daily Hansard, a proof version, is now available on the internet four hours after the House adjourns each day. Weekly Hansard, comprising the revised dailies, is available on the internet three working days after the end of the sitting week and in hard copy a week later. The weekly books are incorporated into bound sessional volumes.[footnote 30]

The first volume of the new Parliamentary Debates was produced on 11 April 1866. The new volumes of proceedings were entitled Parliamentary Debates, although the documents and the service continued to be known as 'Hansard'. The name Hansard was only restored to the official title page of the publication in 1958, acknowledging the historical association and recognising popular usage, with the start of the 41st Parliament.[footnote 31] From 1866 to mid-2015, over 522 volumes of the debates have been published by Hansard.

Hansard today

Celebrating its 150 year anniversary in 2016, Hansard now has 50 staff with a range of roles. Hansard broadcasts and publishes a printed record of the debates of both Houses in full, as well as providing transcription and broadcasting services to parliamentary committees. Hansard uses the latest technologies to produce a fully searchable Hansard database, which is available on the internet, and it manages the live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings through the Parliament of Victoria website. Hansard is now more accessible than ever and continues to be an important and valuable resource for all Victorians.


Debra Reeves, Research & Loans Officer

Parliamentary Library & Information Service,

Department of Parliamentary Services

Parliament House, Spring St, East Melbourne

Telephone: (03) 9651 8640


© 2016 Parliamentary Library & Information Service, Department of Parliamentary Services, Parliament of Victoria

With the exception of any copyright that subsists in a third party, this publication is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence.


[footnote 1] J. S. Weatherston (1975) Commonwealth Hansard: Its Establishment and Development, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, pp. 1-3.

[footnote 2] Preface (1858) Victorian Hansard: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the Legislative Council & Assembly of the Colony of Victoria: Session 1856-57, Melbourne, William Fairfax & Co.

[footnote 3] (1856) 'Parliament of Victoria: Legislative Assembly', The Age, 18 December, p. 4.

[footnote 4] (1856) 'Parliament and the press', The Argus, 18 December, p. 4.

[footnote 5] (1856) 'News of the day', The Age, 8 December, p. 4.

[footnote 6] (1856) 'News of the day', The Age, 13 December, p. 4.

[footnote 7] (1856) 'The Age V. Hansard', The Argus, 15 December, p. 6.

[footnote 8] (1856) 'Parliamentary reporting', The Argus, 22 December, p. 5.

[footnote 9] (1857) 'Words, words, words!', The Argus, 16 June, p. 4.

[footnote 10] (1860) 'Legislative Assembly: Parliamentary reports', The Age, 19 April, p. 6.

[footnote 11] R. Heales (1860) 'The 'Victorian Hansard'', Victorian Hansard, Melbourne, Legislative Assembly, 18 April, p. 936.

[footnote 12] Select Committee upon The Hansard(1860) Report: Together with the Proceedings of Committee and Minutes of Evidence, Melbourne, John Ferres, Government Printer, p. v.

[footnote 13] ibid., p. 2.

[footnote 14] R. Heales (1860) 'Hansard – Reporting the Debates', Victorian Hansard, Melbourne, Legislative Assembly, 5 July, p. 1480.

[footnote 15] Victoria, Legislative Assembly (1860) Votes and Proceedings, no. 117, 20 July, p. 430.

[footnote 16] J. J. Casey (1865) 'Reports of Debates in Parliament', Victorian Hansard, Melbourne, Legislative Assembly, 23 June, p. 1031.

[footnote 17] G. F. Verdon (1865) 'Supply', Victorian Hansard, Melbourne, Legislative Assembly, 29 June, pp. 1073-1075.

[footnote 18] Editorial (1866), The Argus, 6 January, p. 4.

[footnote 19] (1866) 'Parliament of Victoria', Geelong Advertiser, 14 February, p. 2.

[footnote 20] (1866) 'The Opening of Parliament', The Age, 12 February, p. 5.

[footnote 21] R. Wright (1992) A People's Counsel: A History of the Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, p. 59.

[footnote 22] A. A. Burns (1967) Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Hansard): Origin, Development and Work, Melbourne, p. 5.

[footnote 23] (1922) 'Early Victorian Press', The Australasian, 29 July, p. 39.

[footnote 24] (1886) 'Colonial Hansards', The Age, 4 September, p. 13.

[footnote 25] (1920) 'Death of Mr. T. R. Hadley', The Argus, 13 December, p. 6.

[footnote 26] S. G. Mellor (1976) 'Willoughby, Howard (1839–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography website.

[footnote 27] (1908) 'Death of Mr W. V. Robinson', The Argus, 6 October, p. 5.

[footnote 28] R. Wright (1992) op. cit., p. 59.

[footnote 29] M. Jack (ed) (2011) Erskine May's Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 24th edition, London, Lexis Nexis, p. 130.

[footnote 30] Parliament of Victoria (2013) 'About Hansard', Parliament of Victoria website.

[footnote 31] ibid.