Sydney’s old tabloid brought us another blast from the past in its coronation anniversary coverage yesterday. This time, it was back to the 1960s with a nostalgic story on Harold Holt’s doomed proposal to replace the Australian pound (divided into 20 shillings, and each shilling into 12 pennies – the ‘£sd’ system) with a decimal currency introduced in 1966 to be named the royal.
The use of the term ‘royal’ for currency does have some history (it didn’t just pop into Mr Holt’s head one lazy afternoon). A British royal commission in 1920 recommended the replacement of £sd with a royal divided into 1000 mills, apparently called the ‘royal and mills’ system. This had first been proposed in 1824. Several of the commissioners favoured a royal divided into 100 halfpennies. Like many such reports, this one was ignored (but not forgotten). In 1969 when the issue was revisited, there were suggestions for a new British currency called a new pound, a royal or a noble, but the use of the British pound as a reserve currency lead to a decision to retain the name pound, which would be divided in 100 new pence.
The Irish government gaelicised the word pound in 1927 to punt, but retained the £sd system until 1971 when the Irish punt was divided into 100 pence (pingini). One obvious (or so it seems to me) question not asked in the tabloid story is why did the Australian Cabinet not simply decimalise the existing £sd pound, so that it was replaced by an Australian pound of 100 pence. This happened six years later in 1971 when the British and Irish currencies were decimalized without changing their names. Perhaps Mr Holt was trying to emulate (or rebuff?) the South Africans who, when decimalizing their currency in 1961, replaced £sd by a currency named with the Afrikaner word rand, and divided into 100 cents, on the eve of the country becoming a (whites-only) republic?
With the loss of the Australian pound we also lost a lexicon of traditional slang terms from Australian English. ‘We’ didn’t just reject a currency called the royal, but along the way we lost the ha’penny, the copper, the tray bit, the zac, the bob and the two-bob, the crown and the half-crown, the deener and the florin, not forgetting the mythical brass razoo. And that’s just the coins! We also lost the ten bob note, the quid and its denominations the fiver and the tenner (although these last two are still occasionally used) and the guinea. The poetry of such traditional monikers brings to mind the folklore that so influenced nationalist historian Russel Ward’s popular new history The Australian Legend, at the time only recently published in 1958.
Decimal currency has not attracted the same degree of affection, if slang can be used as a measure of affection. I remember, during the Franklin Dam campaigns, there was a brief use of ‘robin’ to describe a 10 cent coin, supposedly derived from the first name of the-then Tasmanian premier Robin Gray who has declared that something (can’t remember what) ‘wasn’t worth ten cents’. The name didn’t survive the victory. The bluish-grey paper $100 notes (1984-1996) were sometimes called a grey nurse, and $20 notes are occasionally named redbacks or lobsters, but it’s a lexicon that seems forced and lacklustre.
Cultural nationalist Geoffrey Serle wrote in 1967 of the threat of ‘Austerica’, or Australia’s seamless transition from British colony to US territory. He worried that this transition had been almost completed without anyone really noticing. As if to illustrate his point, Australia left the sterling area in 1967, but its new dollar remained pegged to the American dollar until floated in 1983. Of course, this did not prevent Serle or fellow nationalist Donald Horne from satirizing and deriding Prime Minister Robert Menzies for advocating the name royal.
A Decimal Currency Board-approved guide to decimalisation produced in 1964 contains a mix of ‘Britishisms’, such as an exercise to work out a train fare in decimal coins in which “Mother takes Susan and Peter to the city…”, ‘Americanisms’ such as an exercise to write a decimal amount on a cheque made out to “Huckleberry Hound”, and ‘Australianisms’ such as the advice to parents helping their children with decimal homework who find themselves “in that humiliating, degrading, agonizing moment when the lad says ‘That’s wrong, Dad! Sir does it a different way!” But perhaps the moment of Austericanisation is marked by the editor’s note that “folk such as the Americans say they just can’t understand our involved handling of £.s.d.” Forget the fiver, exhorted the guide, goodbye guinea.
Some interesting questions not asked in the tabloid article include Who really opposed the royal? Are there geographical or other patterns, such as newspaper ownership, in the opposition? What were the alternative names seriously considered? What were the arguments against them? Who advocated the Americanist terminology of dollars and cents? What motivated them?
Can we read the victory of the dollar over the royal or the pound as evidence, not of the rejection of royalty, but of the victory of Austerica? Is it just a coincidence that this story appears, during the media’s coronation anniversary coverage, in the section of a tabloid called simply ‘Money’?
So, in the early 1960s when the Australian government was considering a new name for a decimal currency, it had the options before it of a name associated with a long history of ‘decimal thinking’ in British-associated societies (the royal – Holt thought this the most distinctive), a name that reflected the post-war financial dominance of the USA (the dollar – but Holt thought this too American), and a name that reflected a sense of Australian history and vernacular language (the pound – but Holt thought this might be confused with the British pound). Each option has its own logic and context that needs to be understood.
That the government chose the dollar may reflect both the creeping Austericanism that Serle warned of, and the realigning of national interests with the then-current superpower in our region. James Curran, on the other hand, attributes the final choice of dollar to opinion polling, and the Labor Party’s decision to support dollar over royal. Labor leader Arthur Calwell threatened to rename the royal as the dollar whenever the Party next won a federal election. When the ALP did eventually win an election, they changed the design in 1974 on all dollar bank notes by replacing the federation’s official title ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ with the geographical expression ‘Australia’.
I think the most radical and nationalistic option would have been to have to choose an Australian pound divided into 100 Australian pennies. But that option didn’t stand a chance in early 1960s Canberra. The less nationalistic but still historically symbolic option was the ‘decimal royal’, but its supporters were derided into silence. Instead, dollars and cents, the most conservative of responses to the symbolic issue of naming our new decimal currency, became the default ‘choice’. And therein lies an explanation for the supposed “royal we rejected”.
• Richard Hughes, ‘Holt’s Folly: one royal we rejected’, Sydney Morning Herald, Money, 5th June 2013, page 8
• Maurice Phillips, in consultation with the Decimal Currency Board, Teach Yourself Decimal Currency, Horwitz Publications, Sydney 1964 (cover price 4/6 or 45c, second hand bookshop price $2.20)
• Donald Horne, ‘Republican Australia’, in Geoffrey Dutton (ed), Australia and the Monarchy, Sun Books, Melbourne 1966: pages 86-108
• Geoffrey Serle, ‘Godzone: Austerica Unlimited?, Meanjin, Vol. 26, No. 3, September 1967, pages 237-250
• James Curran and Stuart Ward, The Unknown Nation: Australia after Empire, Melbourne University Press, Carlton 2010: Chapter 3 ‘Falling between two stools: solutions’, pages 91-97; and ‘Notes’, pages 280-281 for a good range of archival sources on the decimal currency name proposals.