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A New Currency

The Decision

In the late 1950s, under the guidance of the Decimal Currency Committee, the Australian Government began to give practical consideration to replacing the imperial system of pounds, shillings and pence with decimal currency – an innovation that had been contemplated since the beginning of the 20th century.

Decimal currency simplified calculations, increasing financial efficiency. However, it represented a radical change to the customary transactions made daily by the nation. In 1963, the government announced that it would introduce decimal currency in 1966. In accordance with the recommendations of the Decimal Currency Committee, it explained that:

  • a changeover to decimal currency would be set for February 1966
  • the major currency unit (subsequently named the dollar) would be equal to ten shillings
  • the minor currency unit (subsequently named the cent) would be one hundredth of the major unit, equal to 1 .2d. in the existing currency system
  • no fractions of the minor unit would be introduced
  • reasonable compensation would be paid to owners of monetary machines that would require conversion.

The Decimal Currency Board was established to oversee the far-reaching program of work. A new series of coins and banknotes was designed as part of the introduction of decimal currency, with imagery that enhanced a sense of the country's distinctive identity.

Monday 14 February 1966, became known as 'C-Day' (Conversion Day).

The Mint produced new decimal coins. Designed by Stuart Devlin, the 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cent coins featured an image of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse side, with depictions of Australia's unique fauna on the reverse.

The Reserve Bank of Australia oversaw the design and production of the new decimal banknotes for the $1, $2, $10 and $20 denominations. In April 1964, the concept designs by Gordon Andrews were accepted and detailed design work began. During 1965, the Bank's Note Printing Branch completed the formidable task of producing almost 153 million new decimal currency banknotes. Other items printed by the Bank for the introduction of decimal currency included cheques, travellers' cheques and bonds, as well as decimal currency postage stamps. The Reserve Bank also had responsibility for ensuring that an adequate supply of new decimal coins and banknotes was distributed to each of the 5,000 bank branches throughout Australia in readiness for Conversion Day.

A prominent educational campaign familiarised the public with the new currency before it was introduced on Monday 14 February 1966 for Conversion Day or 'C-Day' .

Its arrival was headlined the 'Day of the Decimals'. Echoing the public education jingle about the conversion, this extract from The Canberra Times reads:

'… In come the dollars and in come the cents. All the planning and preparation, all the publicity and the dinning of ear drums, have been directed towards this day and those that will follow. Most of us by now must be looking forward not with trepidation but relief that the campaign has come to a climax. The Decimal currency Board has done an efficient job …'
The Canberra Times, page 2, 14 February 1966

Interview with Dr H C Coombs

The Governor, Dr H C Coombs, is interviewed by Walkley award-winning journalist Gary Scully. Dr Coombs describes the new decimal currency banknotes, highlighting the boldness of their colour, their uniquely Australian design elements and explaining their security features.

Read Transcript


Interviewer: It has been suggested that this currency is probably among the brightest in the world.

Dr H C Coombs: Yes, we have certainly gone for lighter and brighter colours in the note. We think this is not completely unique, there are currencies in the world that use these lighter colours and we think they're attractive. We think they're appropriate in the Australian environment, and we think once people have got over the little sense of unfamiliarity in this, they will come to like them very much.

Interviewer: What are the main precautions against forgery?

Dr H C Coombs: Well, the precautions against forgery are complex. Some of them are specific, such as the watermark in the paper – the Captain Cook head. There is a metal strip almost in the centre of the note, which runs from one side of the note to the other. But the other features are more difficult to be precise about. There is the use of separate portraits in every note. These are, we believe, very difficult to imitate and are a recognised security feature in notes all over the world. Also, the paper itself is of very special quality and fineness and we think will be hard for any potential forger to imitate.

Interviewer: Doctor, I understand the production techniques used in these notes were radically different from the old system, Can you explain a little about this?

Dr H C Coombs: They are different in a variety of ways, apart from the fact they are, of course, a completely new and fresh design. Perhaps the aspect of the technical side of the note which is most different from the predecessor is in the background. This has been printed by a process that we have never used before. And indeed, in some respects we use it in a way in which its not been used anywhere in the world. This gives a design for the background which uses a variety of colours, although in each note, one colour will predominate. But they are printed with a series of overprintings which are very precise and very fine and this gives a complexity and detail of background which we hope will be exceedingly difficult to imitate; but at the same time, attractive and interesting to the holder of the note. And the quality of the printing which I referred to earlier. This is above all, I suppose, the thing which is most difficult for a forger to imitate. That is why it is always wise to have a fairly careful look at a note. Lots of pieces of paper can generally look like a note, but it's very hard to imitate the precision and fineness of good note printing.

Interviewer: Doctor, when 'C Day' comes around, will there be enough of these notes?

Dr H C Coombs: Well, we hope so. There will certainly be more of these notes available in banks than the whole of the existing issue, so that it would be possible for everybody who has an Australian note now to replace it with a new one. They won't all want to do this of course, so for some time both sets of notes will circulate side by side. But we expect that the new notes will pass into predominant use very quickly.

Early Inquiries about Decimal Currency

In 1935, the embattled Labor government of Joseph Lyons set up the first major inquiry into Australia's banking and monetary systems. The initiative followed a federal election in which Prime Minister Lyons lost his outright majority. As a result, he was forced into a coalition with the Country Party, which was very keen to see an investigation into the banking system.

Several members of the Bank's staff were closely involved with the resultant Royal Commission, including Economic Advisor Sir Leslie Melville (who wrote lengthy submissions and appeared in person). And the Commission Secretary was John 'Jock' Phillips, who didn't work for the Bank at the time but went on to become Governor of the Reserve Bank in 1968.

It is believed that Jock Phillips drafted paragraph 689, the Commission's 29th Recommendation, that called for the introduction of 'a system of decimal coinage … based upon the division of the Australian pound into 1000 parts'. Although it didn't quite turn out that way, the Commission's insightful justification nonetheless rings true: 'With this introduction, money calculations of all kinds will be simplified and shortened and a great deal of time and trouble will be saved in industry and commerce, more of the time of school children too can be devoted to other subjects. The chief difficulties to be overcome are tradition, inertia and inconvenience in the transitional period.'