How a new currency reflected the confidence of a nation (2023)

Yet it conceded that converting decimalisation would invite criticism owing to "tradition, inertia and the inconvenience and cost of the transitional period". Opponents of change, the royal commission predicted, would come "from those who prefer the old system because they are accustomed to it, and from those who would deprecate a break with the custom followed by Great Britain."

British ties eroded

These comments were probably valid at the time they were made. The European population of the country was overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic, and Australians generally regarded themselves as committed members of the British Empire. The Ottawa Agreements signed in 1932 consolidated the country's links to Britain, and the Australian pound was pegged to the pound sterling.

But in time these social and economic ties were eroded as migrants poured in from continental Europe, and Australia began to take greater interest in the rest of the world. During the Second World War the prime minister, John Curtin, confirmed Australia now looked to the United States. While he was alluding in particular to defence support, by the 1960s there was a desire for all things American: pop music, appliances, clothes and social attitudes. Asia, too, loomed larger in the Australian consciousness.

Young Australians from the 1950s were mixing with students who had come to study under the Colombo plan. The Civil Rights movement in the United States and the indignities forced upon persons of colour in South Africa under the apartheid regime turned attention increasingly to Australia's Indigenous communities. Local artists, designers, musicians, playwrights and novelists were increasingly exploring themes that embraced the Australian landscape, ideas, history and society.


These developments help explain why nostalgia for an imperial currency system, and worries about weakening the links with Britain, evaporated as matters of concern when discussion resumed on the subject of decimal currency a couple of decades after the royal commission. In the mid-1950s, a Decimal Currency Council was established to push the case. This was a private organisation chaired by the eminent economist and vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Sir Leslie Melville. Reporting in 1957, it recommended Australia should convert to decimal currency.

The decisive breakthrough came with the announcement by prime minister Menzies in his policy speech for the December 1958 election. The government, he said, had accepted in principle the case for adopting the decimal system. If returned to office, the government would create a Decimal Currency Committee to advise how it might proceed. The committee, chaired by Walter (later Sir Walter) Scott, was formed in February 1959. A young Treasury officer, Neil Davey, was appointed secretary to the committee.

Moves to decimalisation

Significant developments, meanwhile, were occurring abroad. India had converted to decimal currency; South Africa and New Zealand announced they were moving in the same direction. After some delay – prompted by the credit squeeze and recession of 1960-61, and the government's near-disaster at the polls in late 1961 – the Treasurer, Harold Holt, announced in April 1963 the government had accepted the recommendations of the Decimal Currency Committee. February 1966 was chosen as the tentative month for the conversion; later February 14 was chosen as C Day – conversion day. A Decimal Currency Board would be established as a statutory authority to oversee the conversion process, including an extensive publicity program. Scott was appointed chairman, with Davey as the executive officer.

These appointments were to prove critically important for the successful transition to the new currency. Scott, who had created the first management consultancy firm in Australia – W D Scott and Associates – was highly regarded both by the government and the business world. Davey had written a doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics on the decimal currency controversy in Britain in the 19th century and was regarded as Australia's expert on decimal currency.

How a new currency reflected the confidence of a nation (1)


Thanks to a brilliantly conceived promotion, the conversion was put in place relatively smoothly. Near-saturation coverage in newspapers and on radio and TV featured a likeable cartoon character called Dollar Bill, who was accompanied by a jingle based on the traditional song Click Go The Sheers. Schools were targeted; reading materials, quizzes, crossword puzzles, pads and pencils were given away for the benefit of students and their parents (and grandparents).

February 14, 1966 was a Monday. On the preceding weekend, in communities across the nation, there was one topic of conversation – the arrival of 'C Day'. Even the Saturday racing and cricket results took second place. Pictures of the new notes and coins had figured prominently in the advertising material distributed in advance. People knew what to expect, but an air of excitement had built up over what the new currency would actually feel like to handle when it was acquired in change or in funds withdrawn from the bank. For some, there was competition among family members and at workplaces to see who would be first to get hold of a new note or coin. There was also some anxiety that prices would increase and whether you'd receive the right change.

For most people, however, it was all a "one-day wonder"; life quickly got back to normal and everyone wondered what all the fuss had been about.

A dollar by any other name?

The most controversial issue had been the naming of the new currency. Consideration was given at first to calling the currency unit, "new pounds". But that was soon dismissed on the grounds that it would be confusing to have old and new pounds circulating together in the months immediately after the introduction of the new currency. Harold Holt preferred a distinctly Australian name, proposing auster or austral. Members of the public suggested various names, among them kanga (true), roo (also true), emu, koala, digger and, facetiously, ming – the latter being the nickname of prime minister Menzies. Cabinet eventually decided on royal, the name preferred by the prime minister. This attracted widespread criticism and in September 1963 royal was dumped in favour of dollar. Since the world was now on a dollar standard, the US dollar having replaced sterling as the major reserve currency, this seemed appropriate.

How a new currency reflected the confidence of a nation (2)


In marked contrast to the controversy surrounding the name, the design of the new coins and notes won almost universal support.

Designing the coins and notes was taken up by the Decimal Currency Committee. The existing notes were drab, conveying little of the more confident country Australia had become.

Some of the nation's finest artists and designers were put onto the design process. Stuart Devlin, an Australian gold and silversmith, won the design competition for the new coins, which were acclaimed by local and overseas authorities. (He later designed the medals for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and was appointed goldsmith and jeweller to the Queen.) A new Australian mint was constructed in Canberra to produce the coins.

An advisory committee chaired by the acclaimed Australian painter, Russell Drysdale, was appointed to conduct the design process for the notes. Four designers were invited to submit designs, with those of Gordon Andrews being selected. Born in Sydney, Andrews was the first Australian designer elected a Fellow of the UK Society of Industrial Artists and Designers. Printing machines were purchased from Britain and the new notes began to be produced in June 1965. By C Day, 182 million notes were available for distribution. By April 1966 most of the old notes had been withdrawn from circulation.

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The new coins and notes – based on fresh designs of Australian fauna and flora, indigenous art, images of significant Australians and objects of national significance – won the approval of experts and from the public in general. They were bold and colourful, reflecting the new mood and outlook in Australia. Above all, they seemed appropriate for a new age.


Two critical decisions

Davey was responsible for two critical decisions. Against the advice of some of his superiors in the Treasury, who argued in favour of basing the new currency on the pound (20 shillings), Davey took a contrary view, arguing that 10 shillings be used as the base. With 12 pence to the shilling, and using 10 shillings as the base for the new currency, one cent would be equivalent to 1.2 pence. In contrast, using the pound as the base, a cent would be worth 2.4 pence. Davey regarded this to be too high. It would give rise to higher prices and would probably require the circulation of a half-cent coin. As with the naming of the new currency, common sense prevailed.

Davey was also successful in arguing that owners of cash registers and other accounting machines should be subsidised for the cost of converting their machines to the decimal system. This, too, assisted the smooth transfer to the new currency. Having observed the implementation of decimal currency in South Africa, where compensation for the cost of converting existing machines was not provided, he was acutely aware that strong support from the business community was essential. A key task of the Decimal Currency Board was to assess the claims for compensation.

Often referred by the newspapers of the day as "Mr Decimal", Davey – who has recently turned 95 – is typical of the senior public servants who worked in Canberra in the 1950s and 1960s. Quiet, unassuming, dedicated to providing non-partisan advice to ministers, they saw themselves as advising the executive government of the day "without fear or favour".

Davey himself never sought the limelight, insisting that "it was just my job", and that he was "in the right place at the right time". But his colleagues were quick to praise his skill and dedication. Shortly after C Day, Scott wrote to the prime minister (now Holt) extolling the "wisdom" of Davey's appointments to the Decimal Currency Committee and the Decimal Currency Board. Davey, Scott said, had "in every way completely justified his selection". He had "carried out all his duties in an outstanding fashion. His ability and skill have been beyond question and have been such as, at all times, to command the complete confidence, and indeed the admiration of every member" of the Decimal Currency Committee.

Selwyn Cornish is the Reserve Bank's official historian and an honorary associate professor of economics in the Research School of Economics, ANU.

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