Bums on seats: how often is your representative present in Parliament?


Attendance levels in Parliament vary a lot. With the 45th Parliament just a few weeks in, our parliamentary vote tracking website They Vote For You is currently listing some federal politicians with 100% attendance and some with as low as 38% attendance.

But what do these figures actually tell us and how accurate are they?

The whole picture?

The attendance figures on They Vote For You do not give us the whole picture. Why? Because our Parliament only records who is actually in the room and voting when a division (or formal vote) takes place. During a division, our Members of Parliament (MPs) and Senators walk to either side of their chamber to show how they are voting. One side is for the ‘no’ voters and one side is for the ‘aye’ or ‘yes’ voters. Their names are recorded and that is the data used by They Vote For You.

However, this leaves a big gap in our records since there are some days in Parliament when no divisions take place. Instead, most voting in Parliament takes place ‘on the voices’, which is when our MPs and Senators shout ‘no’ or ‘aye’ and whoever shouts the loudest wins.

This means that most of the time we don’t know who is present in Parliament and who isn’t. The information we have is limited to when formal votes take place.

Then there is the issue of pairing in both the House of Representatives [218 KB] and the Senate. Sometimes when an MP or Senator knows they are going to be absent, their party will arrange for them to be paired with another MP or Senator who planned to vote the other way. For example, if a Coalition member is going to be absent for a particular division in which they were going to vote ‘aye’, a Labor member who intended to vote ‘no’ may be paired with them. This means the Labor member will not vote in the division either so that the Coalition member’s absence doesn’t affect the result of the division. Pairing arrangements like these are informal and not part of parliamentary procedure. They can last for just one vote or be an ongoing arrangement.

Ministers often have lower attendance rates because their other duties keep them from Parliament. This can also affect members of the opposition who are regularly paired with Ministers and so bring down their attendance figures.

So what’s the point in having attendance figures if they don’t give us the whole picture?

Even the limited attendance data made available by Parliament can tell us a lot about our elected representatives and how well they are representing our interests in Parliament. This is especially true for citizens whose representatives are independents, members of the smaller parties or backbenchers.

Absent politicians cannot properly represent their constituents. The lower their attendance figures, the less likely they are doing their jobs properly. Of course, they may have perfectly good reasons for being absent and may have arranged for a pair so that their absence doesn’t affect the ultimate outcome of a given division. Or they may not have. The only way to know for sure is to draw their attention to their attendance figures and ask them for an explanation.

Without these attendance figures, we wouldn’t be able to hold our representatives to account for their absences.

As the 45th Parliament continues, keep an eye on whose attendance figures are dropping below 50%. And if it’s your MP or Senator, perhaps it’s time to contact them and ask them to “please explain”.


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The year is almost over – here’s our plan for the rest of 2016

While our trip to Cockatoo Island a year ago seems like it was an age away, this year feels like it has sped by. We’ve already launched two major projects in 2016 – something I don’t think we’ve ever done before. No wonder it feels like we’ve been busy.

We had our final quarterly planning session for 2016 earlier this week. These last-quarter planning sessions feel different. You’ve already spent the year refining the plan so you just feel like you want to get on and do it. Save the big picture stuff for the new year.

At least that’s how our session started out. We spent a good deal of time reflecting on the last quarter. We were a month ahead of schedule at the start of last quarter. By the end of the quarter we were a month behind. Why did this happen? And why did we feel on the edge of burnout, and what structural changes can we make to ensure that doesn’t happen?

We didn’t come up with any big solutions but it’s good to be talking frankly about it and starting to plant the seeds of positive change. One small thing we have planned this quarter is to spend a bit of time discussing how we can improve the Foundation’s financial sustainability. This is something we need to address in the year ahead.

In August Luke spent a day exploring and hacking on a prototype that gives us feedback about the use and impact of PlanningAlerts. He was happy with what he created but left feeling like he had even more questions and a better sense of what those questions should be. We’ve also seen evidence recently of something we’ve long suspected – that when we don’t work on a project its use and impact can actually drop off.

This shows us that it makes sense for us to try having these days regularly. All this quarter we’ve got a day set aside each month to work on understanding the performance of a project. We’ll focus on a different project on each of the days.

Here’s what else we’ve got in store:

A photograph of our wall planner with what we've got planning from October through December in 2016

What we’ve got planning from October through December in 2016


Right To Know

Despite having spent more time on Right To Know than originally planned we’re going to keep working on it all through October. We’re really enjoying working on it and it seems to be having a big impact.

We’ve already gathered all sorts of data on how requests are working at the state and local government level. The next step is to analyse the data and learn what things we can do and what changes we can make to improve that process.

Other things

We’re finally going to do something with the late Civic Tech Monthly newsletter.

Our first ever project performance feedback day will be next week. We really should come up with a snappier name :) It will be dedicated to Right To Know.

Matthew is coming back from holidays and will continue work on morph.io stability. Hopefully we’re only a few weeks off having a much more stable and happy morph.io.


PlanningAlerts Supporters has been rescheduled to start in November. We learned a bit in our EOFY donation drive that will be useful in this work. We also need to spend a few days working on Ask Your Councillors so we can add in the recently elected NSW councillors. Our performance feedback day will be on PlanningAlerts.

We have a joint meetup with Sydney CryptoParty in the works and we’ll have our first OAF sustainability session.


We’re really disappointed and frustrated with the usability and appearance of our website and donations systems. They’re not the good examples we want them to be (special shoutout to those reading this on a mobile device!). In December we want to see how far we can get in just 3 days reworking the website so it at least works on mobile and generally looks and functions a bit better.

We’ll also start a couple of weeks work on some They Vote For You improvements. We’ll dedicate our performance feedback day to TVFY which will also help feed into this.

And finally, in December we’ll once again have a little celebration with you – the people that have made 2016 possible. Thank you all.

Posted in Planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Right To Know Day – you have the Right To Know, now right across Australia

Photo of Highway 1, Australia stretching into the distance

Highway 1, Australia by Tony Bowden, used with thanks under Creative Commons

Is it safe for your children to swim in the river? How much did your council spend on that fancy new mobile app? Will we be building better public transport? How much graffiti is being reported in your area? What really happened to those stranded whales you heard about?

Australia’s state and local governments create and hold some of the most vital information on your behalf and you have the right to access it. As you can see in the requests above you can use Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to open this government information and answer important questions that help you, your family, and your community.

Now you can use Right To Know to make these requests to any state authority and local government in Australia.

From day one we imagined a single site where you can request information from any government authority in Australia. Today—on International Right To Know Day no less—that becomes a reality.

If you want answers, use your right to know and make a request.

Posted in Announcement, RightToKnow.org.au | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

OpenAustralia Foundation responds for your Right To Know

Today the ABC reports “Tax Office imposes blanket ban on FOI requests via Right To Know website”. In the article the OpenAustralia Foundation’s response provides the context of the Australian Tax Office’s (ATO) refusal to process valid FOI requests made through the Right To Know. We hope to see the ATO continue to process your requests, as they have for the previous 4 years, and return to complying with the Freedom of Information guidelines of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

Here’s the response we sent through to Simon Elvery at the ABC in full:

Up to now we’ve had a good working relationship with the ATO. We’re genuinely baffled by the reasoning they use to justify their refusal to process requests via Right To Know.

Since receiving their first FOI request from a person using Right To Know almost 4 years ago the ATO has helpfully responded to dozens of other requests. From time to time we receive takedown requests from people and government agencies and we act on each and every one of them in line with our clear takedown policy.

In total, the ATO has sent us 5 takedown requests. We give every request serious consideration and have responded to each within a day. We agreed with 4 requests and promptly acted on them to remove the material. One of the most recent requests did not meet our takedown policy so we have not taken it down.

We’ve previously been asked to redact the names of ATO staff due to a processing error made by the ATO which put their staff at risk. We responded within an hour and agreed to take down the material, giving the ATO time to supply correctly redacted documents a few days later.

In this case we have not been asked to redact names. Instead we were asked to remove a request by a member of the public for an internal review into the decision about their FOI request. The ATO claimed that they found it abusive towards their staff members. The ATO’s takedown request did not meet our takedown policy, so we have left the request up on Right To Know.

We work hard to ensure that Right To Know is a safe environment where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent. We stand by our community and join their polite and respectful calls to the ATO to start processing the valid FOI requests made to them by people using righttoknow.org.au.

And here’s the ATO’s statement that the ABC provided us:

The ATO’s decision to cease processing requests via the Right to Know website does not relate to one specific case. Rather, this decision was taken due to our concerns about systemic issues with the management of FOI requests through this website. In particular:

  • Publishing all procedural material about FOI requests is not acceptable, nor is having no contact number, address or ability to respond promptly to email requests.
  • We are particularly concerned with the names of staff processing the FOI request being published on the website, when this information is not relevant to the FOI application.
  • We also have concerns that the website takes no responsibility for supervising posts or removing unacceptable material, and the ATO will not be exposing staff to this risk.
  • The ATO complies fully with the FOI legislation. People can make FOI requests direct to the ATO by emailing foi@ato.gov.au or through the paper form available at www.ato.gov.au
Posted in Announcement, Media, RightToKnow.org.au | 1 Response

They Vote For You – Why isn’t there a policy on that?

Make a new policy

Firstly, thank you for visiting They Vote For You! We currently have over a hundred policies that you can use to explore how your representatives vote on particular issues. But what if something’s missing that you really care about? And why isn’t it there already?

Here are three possible reasons why we may not have your issue right now:

Maybe no one thought to create it yet

Anyone can create a policy on They Vote For You – including you! Or you can send us a suggestion. Right now we’re actually on the hunt for new policy ideas and would love to hear from you.

So if you do have a burning issue you think should be on the site – no matter how big or small – please let us know via email, Twitter or Facebook by Monday 22 August 2016, before our new Parliament begins sitting.

Maybe there aren’t any divisions on that topic


In our Federal Parliament, only formal votes (known as divisions) are officially recorded. These are votes where our politicians divide themselves into two groups on either side of the chamber: one side for the Yes (‘Aye’) voters; and one side for the No voters. Each politician’s name is recorded along with how they voted. We use this data on They Vote For You.

Unfortunately, most votes in Parliament take place ‘on the voices’, which is when our politicians shout ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ and the group shouting the loudest wins. During these votes, no names are recorded so there’s no way to tell how each politician is voting without watching them all closely. With no official data on these votes, we can’t include them on They Vote For You.

We think this is a serious problem and have raised the issue in a recent parliamentary inquiry, arguing that citizens can’t properly hold their representatives to account without their entire voting record. Unfortunately, this is how things stand at present.

Maybe our Federal Parliament doesn’t make laws on that issue

Aus. Const.

Australia has a federal system, which means that some issues are the responsibility of our Federal Government, like higher education and security, and some are the responsibility of our various State Governments, like primary and secondary education and health. The Australian Constitution lists what areas the Federal Government can make laws on and everything else falls under state responsibility.

Occasionally the Federal Government does make laws on state issues, but only if it gets permission to do so from our State Governments – which isn’t easy.

You won’t find any policies on They Vote For You on funding hospitals or building more state schools, because our hospitals and state schools are controlled by our states.

But since our federal system is complicated, don’t let it stop you from making suggestions! Even our politicians get mixed up sometimes and try to make laws outside of their areas of responsibility.


So suggest away! We look forward to hearing from you.


Edit 04-08-2016:

It’s quite rare for the Federal Government to actually pass laws on subjects outside of their areas of responsibility (as defined by the Constitution), but the issue does come up occasionally. One of the cases that budding constitutional lawyers have to study on this issue is Murphyores v Commonwealth (1976) 136 CLR 1, a High Court case that looked at the limits of our Federal Government’s trade and commerce power.


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They Vote For You – What new policies would you like to see?


They Vote For You now has over one hundred policies to help us keep track of how our representatives are voting on our behalf! They range from whether to have a Royal Commission into banking to whether to legalise same-sex marriage, and you can find them all on your representative’s voting record. For example, here’s a snapshot of our Prime Minister’s record:

Malcolm Turnbull's voting record

We’re very pleased with our current crop of policies – and we hope you are too! – but there are still many subjects that our Parliament has voted on that haven’t yet to make it onto our site. And we’d like to do something about that before our newly (re-)elected MPs and Senators fly into Canberra for their first sitting day.

Tell us what you care about

We want you to get involved and let us know what new policies you’d like to see on They Vote For You. You can do this by:

  1. Jotting down the issues that matter most to you;
  2. Looking up your current representative’s voting record;
  3. Reading through the policies they voted on to check if all the issues that matter most to you are included; and
  4. If any are missing, letting us know via email, Twitter or Facebook before our new Parliament’s first sitting day on Monday 22 August 2016.

I’ll be online each Thursday and available to chat over Twitter and Facebook, so please feel free to join me then to discuss potential policy ideas.

When did you say their first sitting day was?

2016 Sitting calendar Jul-Dec

The parliamentary sitting calendar hasn’t been updated yet, so we don’t actually know when the first sitting day of our new Parliament will be. However, our guess is that  it will be some time after the beginning of the Spring parliamentary season, which starts in late August.

So let’s see how many new policies we can create by Monday 22 August 2016

We look forward to hearing from you!



Posted in OpenAustralia Foundation, They Vote For You | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Responses

Adding your local councillors to PlanningAlerts

You may have heard that you can now use PlanningAlerts to discuss development applications with your local councillors. With over 5,000 councillors in Australia just gathering the data is a big job. We’ve already done that for about half the councils we currently cover but we need your help to collect the rest.

Photographs of all the Perth councillors

Your local councillors. If you live in Perth, that is.

How to contribute councillor information

The first time you do this you’ll need about 30 minutes. After that it usually takes about 15 minutes per council but some councils make the information very difficult to find (or don’t publish it at all!) so it’s different each time. You don’t need to be a programmer but you will need fairly good computer and internet skills (if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you have those skills).

Find a council we don’t cover

The first step is to find a council we don’t already have data for. We’re keeping this list on a GitHub issue. On that page you’ll see a bunch of councils that don’t have ticks – those are the ones we still need data for.

Find the data and add it to the spreadsheet

All the data that powers this project is kept in a Google Sheet that anyone can edit. It’s already been pre-populated with a lot of data from scrapers (on morph.io, of course) but there’s often key details, like the councillors’ email address, that we don’t yet have. There’s a spreadsheet tab for each state so select that first, then search the spreadsheet for the name of the council you’re adding.

The next step is to find the council web page that contains all the councillor details, like this one for Perth, then copy them into the spreadsheet. Here’s a full list of the columns you can fill out. Some are essential, some are important, and some just nice-to-have. It’s important that the data is accurate so make sure you double-check it as you add it in.


name – The name of the councillor

email – Their unique email address (not a generic one for the council)

id – This is automatically generated so just leave it as is

council – This is the council name, it’s probably pre-populated


image – URL to a photo of the councillor

party – The councillor’s political party. This is often available on Wikipedia but not the council’s own website.

source – URL where you got this information


ward – Councils are typically divided into wards, which does this councillor represent?

council_website – URL of the council

start_date – Date this councillor came into service

executive – Is this person a Mayor or deputy Mayor? We don’t currently display this but it could be used for other things

phone_mobile – Another field we don’t currently use but have been collecting anyway

That’s It!

Well, not quite – we’ve still got a few things to do to import it into PlanningAlerts so just shoot us an email and we’ll get started. Now you can give yourself a pat on the back…before you keep on gathering data for another council, of course ;)

Posted in PlanningAlerts.org.au | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matthew’s back: Improving the stability and scalability of the morph.io platform


I’m very happy to be back at the Foundation for a little stint now to get my hands dirty on some coding, something I haven’t had any opportunity to do over the last year. It’s funny how you can miss these things!

As you might have noticed, I’ve been away from working on morph.io and being part of OpenAustralia Foundation for the last 12 months, with 10 of those with me working at the Digital Transformation Office (DTO). It’s been an amazing experience working at the DTO, a crazy rollercoaster ride, and I’ve learned heaps. It was an extremely difficult decision to move on but ultimately I think the right one for me.

Morph.io, OpenAustralia Foundation’s scraping platform, used by civic technology organisations from around the world and thousands of individuals to scrape around a million web pages per week, started as an experiment.

We didn’t really know whether it would work. Would people want to use it? Would it attract a community? Would members of the community be willing and able to support the platform financially?

We knew we needed something like morph.io to help us build and maintain planningalerts.org.au but we really didn’t know if it was worth making it something that a much broader group of people could use.

So, when I started working on morph.io I built it using the tech equivalent of double-sided sticky tape, brown paper and a pair of scissors. Build it in the simplest possible way to get going and prove (or disprove) the concept as quickly as possible. This is a cornerstone of lean.

Over the last year, morph.io has definitely experienced growing pains. More and more people have been joining, running more and more scrapers. This is a good problem to have! However, when things go wrong on the platform they tend to go pretty badly wrong. All at once the job queue gets backed up, the io and cpu of the server gets pegged and we all too easily run out of disk space. It takes a lot of effort to recover from those situations. It doesn’t impact users beyond their scrapers taking a long time to start or run or in the worst situations the site running slowly, but it doesn’t help people trust the platform.

All the time that we’re firefighting problems on the morph.io server, the less time we have for developing new features.

So, with that in mind I’m spending the next month or two focusing on improving the underlying stability and scalability of the morph.io platform. Here’s the list (brought together from existing issues on Github) of what I’m planning to work on.

It’s going to be a busy month or two for morph.io, so please stay tuned for updates.

If you have stability or scalability things you particularly would like to see addressed soon then get in touch.

Posted in Announcement, Development, Morph | 1 Response

Setting sail for the second half of 2016

A couple of weeks ago we had our third planning session for 2016. These quarterly planning sessions allow us to reflect on the work we’ve been doing and make any adjustments we need during the year. This post is a little update on what we discussed and what we’ll be working on from July through September.

We spent a lot of the day talking about the big picture – where our work sits in the broader goals of the Foundation. Once we got down to the details we essentially agreed with the plan we’d already formulated. That’s a reassuring sign that the work we did earlier in the year to map out a plan was pretty on the mark.

The main difference is that we’re ahead of schedule with our Ask Your Councillors project. It’s already launched and we’re just wrapping up a few things on the project. That means we’ve got an extra month up our sleeves so we’re going to move everything forward a month. We’ll work out what we do with the extra month at our next planning session at the end of September.

A photograph of our Q3 schedule on the wall.

We’ve made our quarterly schedule more functional but the appearance could use some work ;) We can now add new things easily though and we’ve already added lots since this picture was taken.

July through August

Right To Know

Instead of needing to work on Ask Your Councillors all July we can now devote most of the month to starting our major work on Right To Know. This will keep us busy all through July and August. With Luke away for all of July we may keep working on this project into September, just ahead of International Right To Know day!

Our Right To Know work has already kicked off yesterday with a design workshop involving Kat and Henare. At this session we worked out the broad goals for the project (increase the number and effectiveness of requests and build the Right To Know community) and started to talk about how we’re going to approach the project.

One of the most important aspects of the project is communicating to people and getting them to use it. While we’ve had our fair share of experience with this it’s really important so we’re looking to get an expert in. We hope to share more details about this soon.

Growing the team

During this year we’ve talked about hiring another full-time person but we haven’t put a lot of active effort into it. In August when Kat, Luke, and Henare are around we’re going to revisit it and decide if we want to dedicate time to this. If we do we’ll be actively searching for a woman to join our team full-time.


PlanningAlerts supporters

In September we’ll be able to start work on this project early. You can read about it in our last planning update.

That’s it for this update, keep an eye out for the next one in October.

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Ask Your Local Councillors

PlanningAlerts makes it easy to impact what happens to your local buildings, parks, streets, and infrastructure. Over the last 7 years almost 40,000 people have signed up for alerts and thousands of you have made official comments on development applications for everyone to see.

But there are more ways to impact what gets built and knocked down. There are people at the council whose job is to understand their community and advocate for people like you who care about it. These people are your local councillors and they work for you.

If you want to help shape how your community changes then these are great people to talk to. They can make sure you’re heard at council meetings, find and request information for you, help you organise locals around the issues that matter, and much more. These are powerful ways to have a direct impact—but working with your councillors hasn’t been part of PlanningAlerts … until now.

Start a conversation

You can now easily ask your local councillors about a development application you care about in PlanningAlerts. This is a new feature that we’ve worked hard to make as simple as possible for you.

Image of the councillors you can write to on a page in PlanningAlerts

A list of local councillors on a development application in PlanningAlerts Moreland City Council

People living in over 70 council areas around Australia will now see an option to write to their local councillors in PlanningAlerts. Since we switched this feature on, dozens of people have used it and councillors from across Australia have responded.

A local councillor’s reply to someones message in PlanningAlerts.

A local councillor’s reply to someones message in PlanningAlerts.

Lots of people do currently write to local councillors about planning, but these conversations all happen in private.

In PlanningAlerts the full exchange is public. You can share and discuss what is (or isn’t) said, and hold the people you’ve elected responsible for their action. Everyone can benefit from your questions and the work councillors do to respond. People who’ve never taken the step to make contact themselves can see how easy it is and how helpful councillors can be.

A handful of brilliant volunteers have collected councillors’ contact details for 70 of the 150 councils in PlanningAlerts (thank you Pip, Daniel and Katska!). Let us know if your council is missing and we’ll prioritise making this new feature available to you. If you’d like to help collect local councillor information, please contact us—we’d love your help to make this available to everyone.

Now it’s time to put your councillors to work for you through PlanningAlerts.

Posted in Announcement, PlanningAlerts.org.au | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment
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