Last Friday, the Parliament of Australia launched its new website, replacing the one that had been in place for 12 years. I had often used the old website to find a range of information on bills and parliamentary inquiries (i.e., investigations into particular issues). This includes explanatory memoranda (according to the glossary on the new site, an explanatory memorandum is “a paper which explains the purpose and details of bills or regulations, usually in a simple and non-technical way”), research papers by the Parliamentary Library, reports of Senate and House committees, as well as records of parliamentary proceedings (known in many Commonwealth countries as Hansard, these records are similar to the Congressional Record here in the U.S.). So I was eager to see if the replacement version provided tools to make the huge amount of information on the site more accessible.
First off, I love the new tool bars at the top of each page. This was also something that I found very helpful about the updates that were made to the Australian legislation website last year. They certainly make it much easier to quickly switch between different pages to find information. The tool bars and associated drop down boxes in this case are very simple and logical. The menu that shows on the left hand side of the page also allows you to clearly see the options for moving around the different components of a particular part of the site. It also means that there’s not too much information on each page – the focus is on providing links to take you to exactly what you want to find.
In addition to being able to search on particular pages (e.g., bills and Hansard), the ParlInfo search function that existed on the old site has been updated (including applying the presentation features of the new website and providing a new “What’s new” page that will list any future updates). There are various training videos available for ParlInfo (as well as written search tips, which are particularly useful if you’re a Kiwi like me and don’t feel like listening to the Aussie accent!).
In terms of following events or connecting with the Parliament, there are clear links to the live feeds of both the House and the Senate – these are on the main tool bar and only light up when each house is currently in session. The “Watch Parliament” page also has recorded videos, although the videos that are available now are only the very recent ones. It may be that the focus will be on uploading new content rather than archived material (there have been live webcasts of parliamentary proceedings since 1999), which can currently be requested.
The “Connect with us” page allows you to follow the Parliament using Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds, and there’s a link to the Parliamentary Library’s very informative blog as well. There are also different options for sharing the information that you find on the site. The share tool bar at the bottom of each page includes a huge number of social media possibilities, as well as email and print.
A new feature (that I think I will use a lot) lets you register to track bills and individual representatives. So if I want to follow the progress of a particular issue, such as the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012 that was recently introduced, I can get updates when there are changes to the page for that bill. What’s really great is that if you’re on the page for a bill (or on the pages that provide information about Senators and Members); there’s a box right there that you can click on to register for updates.
There are some additional features that I quite like, such as the links to the websites of Australian state parliaments on the “About Parliament” page. Interestingly, they’ve also included an external link to a site that provides links to the websites of parliaments around the world (and on that site, the links for the U.S. Congress include THOMAS). I was also impressed by the pages related to Senators and Members, which allow you to search for a representative by zip code and electorate (i.e., district), and to browse by clicking on the relevant state on a map. The page for each representative contains all the information that a constituent might need, including websites, phone numbers, a map of their district, links to speeches, and even links to their Facebook and Twitter pages. There are also contact forms that allow for questions to be submitted directly to the representative’s office.
Apparently the development of the website hit a few significant bumps in the road along the way, including a major security breach by hackers and a “botched” IT upgrade last year. This delayed the launch by a year and caused the project to go over budget by about A$600,000. One Australian Senator, in typical Aussie forthright style, called the situation a “balls-up.”
In terms of the site itself, while I did find a few links that aren’t working at the moment as I was navigating around the site (and links to reports that I recently accessed appear to no longer be available and are not redirected to pages on the new site), I definitely like the new layout and features. Although I’m no technical expert, one thing that I like about the updated ComLaw site that doesn’t appear to be present on the Parliament site is the use of URLs that are “people readable” (they don’t contain a lot of different symbols, are shorter, and are therefore better for sharing and including in documents). Overall, however, being able to find and keep track of the wealth of accurate and up to date legislative information that the Australian Parliament makes available is of huge importance to my work, and the new website will certainly make that easier.