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Reserve Bank will give us change for $5

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The new $5 note will feature a representation of First Australians, similar to the Centenary of Federation note in 2001 (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Reserve Bank of Australia has decided not to replace Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait on the Australian $5 note with the features of King Charles III, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

CONTROVERSIES OVER currency and the British Royal Family have not been uncommon in Australia. Valentine’s Day 1966 was when decimal currency replaced Imperial pounds, shillings and pence in Australian commerce. Now the Reserve Bank of Australia has decided to replace the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and ‘update the $5 banknote to feature a new design that honours the culture and history of the First Australians’.

The change being brought in by the RBA is an important symbolic step.

National Chair of the Australian Republic Movement Craig Foster said:

“Australia believes in meritocracy so the idea that someone should be on our currency by birthright is irreconcilable as is the notion that they should be our head of state by birthright.”

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II first appeared on the $5 polymer note in July 1992 when she celebrated the 40th anniversary of her accession.

The RBA’s decision now is to update the $5 banknote to feature a new design that honours the culture and history of the First Australians. The other side of the $5 banknote will continue to feature the Australian Parliament. The decision by the RBA is a natural consequence of recognising the important place of First Nations Australians in our national story.

Controversies over currency and the Royals have occurred in Australia. The Australian dollar was first introduced in 1966 when it replaced the Australian pound and introduced a decimal system to the nation. Although investigated as an alternative as early as 1901, the decimal currency system was initially introduced to Australia as an election promise by then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1958.

There was much discussion about the name of the new currency, with several specifically Australian names such as the “Kanga”, “Austral”, “Merino” and “Dinkum” bandied around. A public naming competition seeking suggestions with an Australian flavour added nearly 1,000 names to this list including such exotic suggestions as “Oz”, “Boomer”, “Roo”, “Kanga”, “Emu”, “Koala”, “Digger”, “Zac”, “Kwid” and “Ming” (the nickname of Prime Minister Menzies).

In June 1963, with no clear consensus having emerged on a name, the Government decided to name the new currency the “Royal”. Treasurer Harold Holt explained that the Government saw this name as “emphasising our link with the Crown” and as being “a dignified word with a pleasing sound”.

Between June and September 1963, the Bank's Note Printing branch developed a variety of design concepts for the Royal notes.

While the name “Royal” was settled upon initially, it proved extremely unpopular with the Australian people. Just three months after announcing the “Royal” decision the Government conceded on 19 September 1963 that the name of the currency unit would be the “Dollar”. This decision won quick and general public approval.

The official conversion to decimal currency took place on 14 February 1966. The jingle below became well-known to many Australians in the lead-up to the conversion date.

In come the dollars and in come the cents,
To replace the pounds and the shillings and the pence,
Be prepared for change when the coins begin to mix,
On the fourteenth of February 1966.


Clink go the coins, clink, clink, clink,
Change over day is closer than you think,
Learn the value of the coins and the way that they appear,
And things will be much smoother when the decimal point is here.

Thankfully, the 1960s Menzies Government finally saw sense in not pushing the “Royal” onto the Australian people. It was a term not recognised as remotely appropriate by Australians.

Australian life has been undergoing processes of change for a long time — 57 years ago, decimal currency replaced Imperial pounds, shillings and pence in Australian commerce. Four years after that, we replaced Imperial measurement with the metric system.

We look forward to the day we replace a British Royal with an Australian as our head of state.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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