13,179 things we’ve learned about politicians — and community journalism — so far

Jackson Gothe-Snape
Mar 1, 2018 · 5 min read

BURN THE REGISTER is a community journalism project making the interests register of federal politicians searchable.

It received a Walkleys Innovation Grant for 2017-18. The digitisation work is more than two-thirds done, with the goal of completion in coming months.

That will mean people can search the register for controversial companies or gifts — like Google for conflicts of interests — rather than trawl through thousands of pages of PDF documents.

With hundreds of hours of work behind us, what have we learned so far?

2. People want to help — but everyone’s time is precious

85 contributors — journalists, public servants, retired baby boomers — have invested at least 30 minutes each into the project. Some have put in dozens of hours over the past five months. All are heroes.

The project has seen many waves of volunteer engagement roll through. Some people stay, some go. Some go and come back.

When life pressures build, volunteering for a community journalism project should be one of the first things sacrificed.

But BURN hopes to make any investment worthwhile: with some knowledge, a shared purpose, friendship and the odd coffee or beer.

3. MPs’ spelling is not good

Not complimentary, but “complementary”. Not accommodation, but “accomodation”. And Barnaby Joyce wrote “seperated” twelve different times on his form.

3. Crowd-sourcing 💗get-togethers

Once members receive a walkthrough, they can contribute to BURN THE REGISTER wherever they are, whenever they want.

But more contributions have been made during “sprints” — short sessions of two hours held in a coffee shop or pub.

Members have met people and shared their discoveries. And some (shout out to Matt!) have even joined in from other cities, online.

4. Some disclosures are not like the others

MPs lodge an initial seven-page form at the start of each Parliament, then an amending form whenever they have something else to declare, like receiving a gift or selling a house.

Several MPs are prolific in their disclosures. Others are less so.

Many BURNers have also noted the inconsistency of disclosures between different MPs.

Take gifts for example.

The resolution governing the House of Representatives register does not explicitly state that the source of a gift is required to be disclosed.

That’s in contrast to the guidelines for the Senate.

But even Senators will, in many cases, not disclose who gave them four dozen bottles of wine.

5. Open source is ace

The technology behind BURN THE REGISTER has been adapted from an open-source project called PyBossa.

It was developed mostly in Spain by Scifabric, a citizen science startup.

The founder of Scifabric himself, Daniel Lombraña, has provided technology assistance and support to BURN.

The project continues to benefit from ongoing updates to PyBossa.

5. Many MPs fail to meet the standards required

Often amending disclosures are not lodged on time — for example, Senator Matt Canavan’s house. What’s the penalty? Behind the odd bad headline, very little.

6. A community is only as strong as its senior members

Helping new members work out how to transcribe often complicated entries to ensure the data is in a standard form is one of the key challenges of the project.

At its launches in Canberra and Sydney or busy sprints, BURN has often been swamped by questions, requests for guidance and a need for walkthroughs for new members.

Through the willingness and capability of senior members of the community there has almost always been a BURN veteran around to help out.

(Shout outs to Al, Sarah M, Nick, Ferg, Noods, Sarah W, Sam, Sara L and anyone who has ever told anyone else that entries are case-sensitive).

7. Mitch Fifield has a very dramatic signature

7 to 13,178. Politicians are never far from controversy. And absurdity.

Many thousands of disclosures have been identified and transcribed by the community so far.

There was the time Senator Kim Carr declared the football tickets three years late.

Andrew Hastie bought and sold some gold bullion for a quick profit.

Bob Katter — surprise, surprise — didn’t take disclosure very seriously.

It was sad when Andrew Wilkie declared a relationship was over. [Update: Good news! Mr Wilkie’s office confirmed that the relationship is ongoing. The disclosure refers to a change in job for his partner.]

Oh. And Andrew Gee got some canola oil.

13,179. There’s lots more work for communities to do

BURN THE REGISTER will make the interests register of federal parliamentarians searchable within months.

With a proven model and the right community support, BURN can be rolled out in other countries or Australian states, such as Tasmania, where the interests register of MPs is not even online yet.

And at a federal level, the work begins again following the next election when thousands of new disclosures are made.

We’ll need some coffee money, so look out for a fundraising campaign ahead of our next big rollout.

Right now though? Come and contribute! Sign up for a walkthrough today.

The Walkley Magazine

Inside the Australia and New Zealand media – stories by and for journalists.

Jackson Gothe-Snape

Written by

Journalist in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.

The Walkley Magazine

Inside the Australia and New Zealand media – stories by and for journalists.