Skip the small change

Small change (got rained on)

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.



Guarding the treasure trove

Buses Commonwealth Games 1982 Photo by Bob Wilson

There’s an archive box in the downstairs cupboard full of black and white negatives. There’s also a proof sheet of 24 photos, presumably from one of the 36 negative folders in the box. I can tell by examining the proof with an eyeglass they date from my years as a rural reporter/photographer in the Lockyer Valley, circa 1980s. There are other random photos, some with information on the back, like the photo (left) of Brisbane council buses waiting on Kessells Road to take punters home from the Commonwealth Games in 1982. Others are a complete guessing game.

Why the hell do I keep these, I ask myself every time the subject comes up: one, I don’t know anyone who has a darkroom;  two, if I did, it would not be equipped to print black and white negatives; three, who really gives a fig?

We lapsed Methodists say ‘toss’ or ‘fig’ when we actually mean something more explicit, you know? But let’s look into this further, whether anyone gives a figgy toss.

The value of hoarding

The documentary Finding Vivian Maier is a stark reminder of the historic value of artistic expression and what could have been lost forever. Maier, an impoverished nanny with an obsessive passion for street photography, died in obscurity. But her legend lives on, thanks to the curiosity and hard work of US film-maker John Maloof.

Maloof pursued Maier’s work after buying a metal box full of negatives from a Chicago auction house in 2007. He set off on a quest to acquire Maier’s unpublished work; more than 100,000 negatives, 700 undeveloped rolls of colour film and many 8mm and 16mm movies. The entire collection has since been digitised so Maier’s work photographing people in the streets of New York and Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century has come to the attention of a wider audience.

Meanwhile in Australia…

If you listen to Radio National, which some FOMM readers do on a daily basis, you may have heard Phillip Adams, historian Tim Sherratt and Peter FitzSimons talking about Trove. Journalists, writers, academics, historians and incurably curious people will know about Trove, the National Library of Australia’s digital archive. You have to sign up to get the best of the database, but it is free and 70,000 people dig into it every day.

The database contains over 473 million books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more. But the ANL’s ability to keep up with the all-consuming job of digitising historic records is under threat. Budget cuts, or ‘efficiency dividends’ as PM Malcolm Turnbull is wont to call them, may stop Trove’s work in its tracks.

Adams pinpointed the key advantage of Trove is that historians spend less time searching for data and more time analysing.

“Trove has had a really profound impact on the nature of historical practice in Australia,” agreed Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital History at the University of Canberra

“All that stuff has always been there in dusty folders, but the revolution of Trove is to have it at your fingertips in two seconds flat. It’s a modern wonder”

Trove was launched in 2009 as a free archive resource and two years later won the Federal Government’s Excellence in eGovernment Award. The irony has apparently been lost on the Turnbull Government, which wants Australian cultural institutions to trim their budgets to save $20 million over four years. The NLA, the National Portrait Gallery, National Film and Sound Archive, and the National Gallery of Australia are among those which have to make some hard decisions.

Fairfax Media obtained a staff letter that said the NLA needed to find $4.4 million of savings by the end of 2017-2018. The Canberra Times said the letter warned that management would cease aggregating some Trove content unless fully funded to do so. Since we’re asking ‘who gives a toss,’ this story was picked up by a London newspaper.

If you’ve ever spent a day or two scanning old photos and documents to save as a permanent digital file, you will know what a labour-intensive job that is. But once it’s done, it’s done and so much easier for students and researchers.

For example, if you are a student or a writer on a mission to write about land rights in Australia, the NLA acquired the entire collection of Eddie Koiki Mabo’s personal papers in 1995.

There are many petitions, Facebook and Twitter campaigns circulating to convince the Minister for Communications and Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, to #savetrove.

But getting back to who gives a figgy toss.

For all of the 70,000 visitors a day accessing Trove, there are another 21.06 million people who clearly do not feel the need to do so. Yet they benefit in a myriad of ways – tens of thousands of books, magazine articles, movies and TV and radio programmes generated each year which use Trove and other research resources.

If you go digging into the history of Vivien Maier, you’ll find she was a bit of a hoarder. Still, there’s bad hoarding and good hoarding, for example saving the Daily Sun’s film negative library for posterity.

The now-defunct newspaper’s laboriously pasted up paper files went to the tip, but luckily the images from a rare era of media independence in Brisbane (1982-1991) live on. Then there’s my kind of scattergun hoarding which yields images like this one, of a Toowoomba hail storm in the 1980s.

Toowoomba hail storm 1980s Photo by Bob Wilson

This might be a good time to point out that old photographs are not much use to anyone without relevant information written on the back. Like the photo in another box of a WWI regiment in front of an ivy covered building. I can identify my Grandfather front and centre, but that’s all I know.

Years from now, we’ll be grateful to the librarians, archivists and yes, hoarders, who helped save around 200 million newspaper articles and images, especially given the large numbers of publications which have closed their doors. I recently stumbled upon the Australian Newspaper History Group, curated by one of my former journalism lecturers, Rod Kirkpatrick, who has written six books about rural newspaper publishing. What is needed to save our information treasure trove (apart from government funding) is people like Kirkpatrick who care about history.

As for my own ‘trove,’ it has been winnowed out over the years, but there are still boxes full of colour prints (and negatives) and colour slides which need to be saved from the ravages of years in damp cupboards. I have scanned the best of the newspaper writing I did, but having digitised, still cannot bring myself to do a Charles Dickens and build a bonfire.

But hang on a bit. Perhaps we ageing baby boomers ought not to second-guess our kids and peremptorily throw out anything we perceive they would not want. When it comes to family photos, postcards, letters, articles, sentimental documents, all can be scanned and curated into media files.

Audio files and home movies can be compiled into a “best of” collection (good luck with that). Store it all on a portable hard drive and keep it in a metal box labelled: “The Best of Mum and Dad’s Memorabilia” (PG).

Someday your sons and daughters may be glad you did.