A Commonwealth Act: decimal currency and Australia | Bendigo Art Gallery

When the whole of Australia was claimed by Britain in 1829, Britain’s Sterling became the circulated currency. Legislation for an Australian currency was not enacted until post-Federation, when the Australian Notes Act was introduced in 1910. Prior to this, private banks issued their own notes. The Bank Notes Tax Act, also introduced in 1910, imposed a 10 per cent tax on all private bank notes, discouraging though not prohibiting their issue. All new Australian currency was marked ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ and British currency was progressively withdrawn.

It took some years to establish a unique set of Australian currency notes. The economy of the new Commonwealth of Australia was heavily reliant on mining and rural activities, and the design of the first series of Australian banknotes reflected this economic structure. The first national one pound banknote featured an image of Bendigo’s Victoria Quartz Mine, acknowledging Bendigo as a focal point of the gold rushes that had transformed the economy during the previous half century.

BANKROLLING BENDIGO: Selection of Australian decimal notes and coins (1966–). Collection of Libby Luke. Photo: Michael Vort-Ronald.

BANKROLLING BENDIGO: Selection of Australian decimal notes and coins (1966–). Collection of Libby Luke. Photo: Michael Vort-Ronald.

The banknotes of the Australian dollar were first issued by the Reserve Bank of Australia on February 14 1966, when Australia adopted decimal currency. The $1, $2, $10 and $20 denominations had exact exchange rates with pounds (10 shillings, £1, £5 and £10 respectively) and were a similar colour to the notes they replaced. The $5 note did not have a direct exchange rate with the Australian pound system, and as such, was introduced the following year, once the public had become familiar with the new system. The $50 note was introduced in 1973 and the $100 note in 1984, in response to inflation requiring larger denominations for transactions. The decimal system brought Australia into line with the system used by the majority of the world, and was much simpler.

Australian gold and silversmith artist Stuart Devlin was selected to design the first Australian decimal coins. He incorporated images of Australian fauna and flora that are still seen today. The Commonwealth Coat of Arms featured on an originally circular 50 cent coin, made from 80pc silver. This composition quickly proved uneconomical, and confusion arose with the similarity between the fifty cent and the twenty cent coin. A new shape and alloy was reintroduced in September 1969, and this is the dodecagonal or 12-sided shape we are familiar with today. The obverse of all Australian currency features Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1996, Australia introduced polymer banknotes, which have enhanced security features and are longer lasting than paper notes. Australian currency continues to be assessed for security and relevance.

The use of the $100 note on the black market has recently been the focus of public discussion, as has decommissioning the 5c coin, which costs more than its value to mint. New coins, featuring an updated portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, will be released in 2019.

See Bankrolling Bendigo: building a city at Post Office Gallery on Pall Mall until October 7.