A week ago a patient teller at our local bank dealt with one of my occasional visits to deposit a bag of small change. Yes, I raided the piggy-bank again, and in case you don’t believe me, there it is (left), handed out free by Macquarie Goodman at the grand opening of the Metroplex on Gateway industrial estate at Murarrie in 1998.
Once I had a Bundaberg rum bottle filled to the lip with one cent coins. The label was signed by WA blues musician Matt Taylor, after Taylor’s band Chain performed at a venue managed by me and a team of volunteers. Matt signed “To (as yet-un-named son) – you ain’t even born yet.”
Later, when we were moving house, the rum bottle was accidently kicked over, smashing on the terracotta tiles, spilling 789 one cent coins across the floor. By this time the Reserve Bank had scrapped one cent coins and was working on ridding the country of two cent coins as well. The Royal Australian Mint removed one and two cent coins from circulation in 1991-1992. The Reserve Bank decided in 1990 that 1c and 2c coins had to go as inflation had rendered them worthless. Or to be more precise, the cost of minting them far outweighed their face value.
The Royal Australian Mint, however, has produced mint sets of one and two-cent coins for collectors in 1991, 2006 and 2010. I was surprised to read that one can still present one and two cent coins as legal tender and they can be banked. They can also be sold as collectables.
Trivia alert: Some of the small change was melted down to make the bronze medals presented to athletes at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Other countries abandoned their one and two cent coins around the same time, citing inflation and the increasing cost of bronze (an alloy of copper with minor amounts of tin and zinc). Ireland ditched its small coins last year, in line with six other Eurozone countries
The end result of axing 1c and 2c coins is a process called ‘rounding’ which means if something is priced at $1.98, you pay $2. If it costs $1.93, you pay $1.95. Who knows what the rounders will do when they scrap the five cent coin – and trust me – it is not far away.
One of the main arguments for doing away with five cent coins is the increasing use of pay wave for small transactions.
What can you buy with five cents anyway? The Northern Star newspaper based out of Lismore asked its readers just that. The answers included ‘lollies at some shops’, ‘20 five cent coins from the tooth fairy’, ‘lemons or limes at the fruit stall’ and my personal favourite – ‘the best things ever to scratch a scratchie’.
In 2014, a Senate Estimates Committee hearing was told the five cent coin cost 6c to manufacture (it’s now closer to 7c). The cost is partly due to the combination of copper and nickel, but also the labour involved in handling and distribution. Yet the 5c coin, with an echidna on one side and Queen Elizabeth on the other, it is still with us, weighing down pockets and purses, wearing holes in the lining of jackets and trousers, disappearing down the sides of sofas and car seats.
One way you can find creative uses for those pesky five cent coins is to donate them to charity. Agencies have been hoarding 1c and 2c coins for years, using the money collected for people in third-world countries. For the past 25 years they have been focusing on 5c coins.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported last December that Australian charity Y-GAP, Y-Generation Against Poverty organised a fundraising campaign which collected 10.9 million individual 5 cent coins.
Then there’s those foreign coins one inevitably brings home from abroad. My cache of foreign shrapnel includes $5.90 in New Zealand coins, a Kiwi $5 note and a one euro coin. If you’ve noticed, some airlines encourage you to deposit foreign coins in an envelope and leave it in the seat pocket of the aircraft as you disembark. Several charities collect these coins and use the proceeds for impoverished children. UNICEF, assisted by the Commonwealth Bank and BankWest, has amassed more than $260,000 in small change since 2009. Small amounts of First World cash go a long way in Africa or India. One UK penny will provide a child with clean drinking water for a day; two Canadian dollars (Loonies) can provide a malnourished child with enough therapeutic super food for one day; in India, 220 rupees (about $4) can buy someone a mosquito net.
The subject of money was being raised at one end of a long table in the local pub on Sunday where members of our community choir had adjourned after a performance. I was at one end of the table and two of the women at the other end were talking about the design of the new $5 note. I set my hearing aids to ‘noisy room’ but still their lips moved and no words came out.
“I’m sure it will make an excellent FOMM,” I shouted, “Once I figure out what you are talking about.”
It transpired they were adding to the dissent and disappointment over the design of the new $5 note. The anti-royalists jumped on to social media posting hastily photo-shopped memes. There are many versions of the $5 polymer note where the Queen’s image has been variously replaced with Tony Abbott eating an onion, Tony Abbott wearing cyclist’s sunnies, Dame Edna looking dashing, Kathy Freeman looking like an Olympic legend and a few odd ones like Pluck-a-Duck, Shane Warne, Delta Goodrem and a jar of Vegemite.
Why did we need a new $5 note at all, you might ask? This one has enhanced security, we’re told.
We have an international track record for that, did you know? Australia was the first country to produce polymer banknotes (in 1988), largely as a response to an increase in counterfeiting. Prior to the launch of polymer notes (created by the CSIRO, the Reserve Bank and Melbourne University), a group of enterprising lads from Melbourne made pretty good copies of the (paper) $10 note. The forgeries were so good some were still in circulation when polymer notes were first introduced.
The new $5 note has a clear plastic strip down the middle, apparently un-forgeable. It also has tactile features to help the vision impaired differentiate between a fifty and a five. The new note is the first of five denominations to be rolled out by Reserve Bank of Australia (at a total cost of $29 million) over the next few years.
Curious, I went to the bank yesterday, ready to trade 100 five cent coins for one of the new notes. Alas, our local teller said she had not spied one in our town and the local supermarket told me the same story. Apparently there’s still 34 million $5 notes in circulation. You will be relieved to know that I have extracted the only necessary fact from this Reserve Bank of Australia technical article about the life-cycle of banknotes: the median life of a $5 note is 2-3 years.
Good luck finding a new one, then.