But whose head will we have on our coins?

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Ross Garrad tackles one of the great unanswered questions of the Republic debate: whose head will we put on our coins?

Ross Garrad says this image could stay for a couple of years.

Yes, it’s time to tackle one of the great unanswered questions of the Republic debate – not only unanswered but unasked as far as I know, which gives a pretty good indication of its importance and relevance. But you can bet your bottom dollar, or 10 cents, or 20 cents, that it WILL be asked as we get closer to a referendum on a Republic, and it will be asked by the opponents of change in a characteristically negative and deceitful way.

The more general issue of The Coinage of the Realm recently raised its ugly head when an undoubtedly honest and objective “audit” of the costs of the transition to an Australian Republic was produced by the monarchists’ self-appointed chief spokesman, coming up with a nice round total of 2.5 billion dollars for the first ten years. Their mentor obviously is that German fellow who asserted, several decades ago, that if you make a lie big enough and repeat it often enough, people will believe you.

The cost of altering our coins formed an unitemised part of this total, when in fact anyone with a pocketful of coins and a headful of grey matter can see that special commemorative coins are often produced, that the Queen’s portrait is updated every decade or so, and that She will in any case vanish from our newly-minted coins at the end of Her reign, whether Charles or an Aussie takes Her place. Let’s not even bother to enquire whether the dies that stamp out our coins actually wear out and need replacing at regular intervals. And the assertion occasionally heard from Flint’s more rabid followers, that republicans would want to melt down all the coins featuring the Queen, should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

When the time comes, the issue of “whose head will we have on our coins” will most likely be presented in the context of “the politicians’ republic”, a dishonest slogan that worked so well last time that it’s bound to get another run. After all, who would want our coins to display the politician-President who happens to be the current “elected King” (or Queen), in the bleak monarchist vision of the new Australia? Or perhaps we would end up with a republican hero like Saint Paul, Saint Gough or Saint Malcolm adorning our currency.

So who could we really feature on our coins? We could follow the American practice, and use a few of our Founding Fathers from the 1890s. The problem is that they were such a boring bunch of exclusively-male politicians and lawyers, and they generally held racist and imperialist views that anchor them firmly in the nineteenth century. Some republics feature a mythical representation of the nation’s spirit or origins, such as Marianne, the personification of the French Republic. A generic indigenous person could do the job for Australia, though this could provoke opposition from some indigenous as well as non-indigenous Aussies, for different reasons.

The potential answers to this issue of national symbolism are limited only by our imaginations – and unlike the monarchists, I don’t believe Australians are short on imagination. What follows is my particular flight of imagination, and it’s a personal view – nothing more.

The timing of our separation from the monarchy could affect this issue; in my personal best-case scenario the most likely time is at the end of the Queen’s reign in the UK: not before, not after. There, that’s sure to stir up some animosity, so let’s move on quickly...  This would open up a possibility that would not be open to the UK or Her other realms: we could keep the Queen on our coins for the first year or two of the Republic, in commemoration of Her remarkable reign. Preferably not the last portrait, but the first, from the 1950s. Some may say that such an unconventional course of action would need Her permission, but, well … She won’t be around to give it or refuse it, will She? Unless She abdicates, in which case we probably should ask permission.

Okay, that takes care of the first year or two, but after that, who decides? Personally, I would like to give the job to our Republic’s Head of State. After all, he or she is likely to have approximately as much real power in all other spheres as today’s Governor-General, that is, pretty much none. The main proviso is that the person on our coins should be ascertainably dead, preferably for at least a few decades like those who currently appear on our banknotes. Monarchies have living people on their currency; republics should have dead ones. It’s an egalitarian thing.

So who would appear on our coins? We don’t know – that’s what would make it so exciting, every five years or so when the head on our coins would change. Of course, if we have an elected President, they could always run on a platform of who they will put on our coins, but that doesn’t seem very likely. Just as an example – if I were doing the choosing, the first name that comes to mind is “Weary” Dunlop. Partly because, to a postwar baby boomer, he epitomised Australian values of fortitude, compassion and solidarity, and partly because of his strong association with at least three Asian countries that are close to my heart. But the important point is that there are many, many great people from our history who have made our country the wonderful place it is – just as there are many, many great people today who could perform the duties of Australia’s Head of State with distinction and honour.

(See more of Ross Garrad's work on Independent Australia by clicking here.)

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