Hansard is the name given throughout the Commonwealth to the daily
printed record of the debates of parliament. Political reformer William
Cobbett introduced Britain's first record of parliamentary debates in 1810 but
later sold his interest in the debates to the Hansard family, printers to the
British House of Commons. Although the Hansard family only produced the
record of debates from 1812 to 1888, the report retained the Hansard name by
which it is known today.
Hansard has been a part of Canada's parliamentary
heritage since 1880 and a part of Alberta's legislative history since 1972.
Canada adopted a Hansard in 1880, and the
publication quickly earned a reputation for its excellent
quality. In fact, Canada's style of Hansard reporting was used
as a model in several other countries. The doors of the House
of Commons hadn't opened easily, though. The struggle for a
permanent, publicly funded record of debates had dragged on for
almost six decades.
A family matter
Beginning in the 1820s Upper Canada’s debates were recorded in newspapers,
though the press in those days was anything but free. Most newspapers remained
under the thumb of the Family Compact, the small, powerful group of English
aristocrats who dominated the government of Upper Canada. Parliamentary
reporters crafted their stories carefully since any reporter who portrayed the
Family Compact in an unflattering way could be fined or even imprisoned.
The Family Compact kept its hold on the press until the Act of Union of 1840
united Upper and Lower Canada and created a more responsible form of government.
The Assembly of the new province of Canada was still reluctant to allow for a
complete parliamentary record. Some members didn't want their speeches to be
taken down and published; others just weren't prepared to pick up the tab.
Newspapers continued to report selected speeches, but this arrangement was
problematic since several newspaper editors were themselves Members of the
United but not agreed
As Canada moved toward confederation, it became obvious that a more
comprehensive record of debates was needed. But what form should it take? Newspaper editors understandably liked the idea of a scrapbook Hansard, a
collection of hand-picked newspaper clippings containing selected members’
speeches. John A. Macdonald, still a decade away from being Prime Minister,
objected to the scrapbook Hansard. He complained that it told an
incomplete story and that citizens would have to read the contents of several
newspapers in order to understand both sides of a debate.
In the 1860s legislators managed to agree on one thing: the Confederation
debates were far too important not to be taken down. The reporting work was done
on a contract basis with inconsistent and expensive results. The high cost and
poor quality of the reports gave fuel to those who were against publishing a
complete record of debates.
Resistance to a Hansard continued, even after Canada became a country
in 1867. In 1874 the Daily Globe ran an editorial against the publication
of a full-length Hansard. The editor suggested that if Members of
Parliament knew they were being recorded in full, the parliamentary report would
become a platform for members' egos. He also insisted that a Hansard
could never be produced as quickly as a newspaper’s report of debates. He
would eventually be proven wrong.
Canada gets a Hansard
Canada finally adopted Hansard, a complete record of parliamentary
debates, in May of 1880. A select committee oversaw the reporting of the
debates, and it recommended hiring a permanent staff of reporters who would be
recognized as Officers of the House. The reporters would also receive
competitive salaries to reduce turnover and improve continuity. The result was
an accurate and consistent publication.
A Prime Minister's plea
Not everyone supported the new Hansard: a
few stale traces of Family Compact strictures remained. Just one year after the
adoption of Hansard, a Member of Parliament moved that the Hansard
be discontinued. He argued that parliamentary debates shouldn’t be
recorded at all. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald responded with an impassioned
speech in which he argued that without a Hansard
... we have no means of tracing out the very groundwork of all our
legislation -- the motives and impulses of those petty municipal questions
which were the chief subjects of interest in the early days and which have
expanded into the larger subjects which are now engaging the attention of the
people and the Legislature of Canada.
Prime Minister Macdonald's speech was a success, and the motion to do away
with Canada's new Hansard was overturned. Although technology has
changed production methods, Canada's Hansard still adheres to the same
high standards of accuracy established back in the 19th century.