Saturday, March 13, 2010

Money Matters: The Royal and the Dollar

In 1966 Australia’s currency went decimal.  Instead of the pounds, shillings and pence, we now had dollars and cents.

In the old currency, 12 pence equalled one shilling, 20 shillings equalled one pound. Something that cost one pound, 2 shillings and 6 pence was written as £1/2/6 and it was expressed as “one pound, two and six”. To make it more difficult, we also had:
-  halfpennies, pronounced “hape pennies”
- quarter pennies, called farthings
- guineas, an amount of one pound one shilling.

All that changed in 1966. This was accompanied by a mass public awareness campaign in the media, headed by a cartoon character called “Dollar Bill” who explained it all. At the same time there was widespread playing of a jingle to the tune of “Click Go the Shears”:

One of the most controversial aspects of the introduction of decimal currency was the name of the principal unit. Use of the name dollars and cents may seem quite logical to us today but not so 1963 when the government of the day had to select the name of the principal monetary unit. Many favoured retention of the names pound and shilling, or simply dollars and cents in keeping with the US and many overseas countries. Others advocated a uniquely Australian name, with the result that Austral was a frontrunner. This was the name favoured by Treasurer Harold Holt but it was vetoed on the basis that it might become “the nostril” in slang usage.

The government, under the leadership of the anglophile Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, aka Pig Iron Bob and aka Ming, couldn’t decide. The matter was put to a public competition, which added the following gems to the debate: 'Oz', 'Boomer', 'Roo', 'Kanga', 'Emu', 'Koala', 'Digger', 'Zac', 'Kwid', 'Dinkum' and 'Ming'.

With time running out, the PM, who had once described himself as “British to his bootheels”, and his government made a decision: the name of the new currency unit was to be “the Royal”. Treasurer Harold Holt stated that the Government saw this name as 'emphasising our link with the Crown' and as being 'a dignified word with a pleasing sound.' The smaller unit would be called “cent”.

Work began on designs:

The public did not agree with the government or the Treasurer.

Public opposition to the name “Royal” was widespread, notwithstanding that 1963 had also been the year of a visit to Oz by Her Maj and Hubby. At a function for that royal visit, PM Menzies had caused many to cringe by quoting to Her Maj the Elizabethan love poem by Thomas Ford: “I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.” In a display of mutual back scratching, 1963 also saw Menzies appointed a Knight of the Order of the Thistle.

Public opposition was both immediate and widespread, so much so that Holt reported to Cabinet on 24 July 1963:

There can be no doubt that we made a very unpopular choice of name… We selected ‘Royal’ because it was distinctive, euphonious, met the technical considerations and had an interesting historical association with the British currency.

I am sure we all hoped that after the first flurry of argument criticism would fade and the public would settle down to an acceptance of it. None of us, as I recall the discussion, judged that there would be so widespread and hostile reaction to the name as has occurred…

Some critics have resented what they regard as an archaic quality about it. Some find it unsuitable for a comparatively young country looking forward optimistically and confidently to an expanding future. Some profess an uncomfortable feeling that it is out of harmony with Australian sentiment…

Whatever the causes… the effect has been to produce an opposition of a strength certainly not anticipated by me…

Of the choices open to us the least unsatisfactory – uncomfortable and embarrassing though it may be – is to admit that we have misjudged the public acceptability of ‘Royal’, that we recognise the controversy surrounding it has greatly strengthened public support for ‘Dollar’, and that in a matter where members of the public are so directly and personally involved, we should meet what we have gathered to be a wish for a change to ‘Dollar’.

On 19 September 1963 the name was changed to “Dollar”.

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