Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Jumbucks and Royals

It's 40 years to the day since Australia went to decimal currency. As the TV jingle went, 'On the fourteenth of February, 1966...'.

I remember ready reckoners, little books rather like pocket bibles, printed on much the same paper, with endless tables wherein you could look up the answer to such mathematical conundrums as 17 times 13 shillings, 3 pence and 1 ha'penny. No, I can't be bothered, at this late hour, to calculate what that came to in pence :-) Which was the whole point.

During 1964 there were endless parliamentary debates about what the new currency should be called. The old was, of course, called after it's British parent, Pounds, shilling and pence. We'd dropped the farthing by the time I was old enough to care about money; I never saw one of those. I do remember seeing the odd half crown about 1963 but they were collectors items by then and certainly not in general circulation. I can remember seeing, in late 1962, a couple of pennies that must have dated back to 1900 or thereabouts in general circulation; they were incredibly worn and you could just make out the visage of Her Imperial Majesty, Queen Victoria if you squinted just right. But I only saw a couple of those and my parents collected them as keepsakes.

Well I seem to remember that the parliamentary debates were endless but then again, I had the concentration span of an intelligent 1964 10 year old so maybe it was only a month or so. Yes, at 10 I was listening to parliamentary debates. Not through choice as it happens nor yet through external infliction unless you count the fact that we lived very close to the government funded radio stations and all I had was a crystal set. Those aren't terribly good at filtering out a 50 Kilowatt signal from 8 miles away and letting you listen to a 10 Kilowatt signal from 30 miles away.

I wasn't missing much though; I've never been much of a fan of Elvis Presley. Even then I'd rather have listened to Parliament than Presley singing 'Wooden Heart'. For the benefit of my American readers who are already thinking Soviet style radio jamming, it was nothing of the sort. The government funded stations had a mandate to cover the entire state whilst the commercial stations only had to cover Melbourne. Add an accident of geography and that's all there was to it. Had I been living in the north eastern suburb of Rosanna I'd have had the devil of a time listening to Parliament instead of 3UZ.

In the parliamentary debates aforesaid in 1964 there was much debate over what we should call the new currency. The Liberal Party (a party then and now somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan) wanted to call it the Royal. The Labour Party wanted to call it the Jumbuck (colloquial grandparent Australian for sheep). Neither side could agree so eventually they decided on the Dollar.

I can see it now; instead of pulling into a petrol station and asking for 10 bucks of petrol we'd have been asking for 10 Jumbucks of petrol. That or 10 Royals. Neither idea really works does it?

On this day 40 years ago, a Monday, I well remember arriving at school and eagerly looking at my friends 5 and 10 cent coins; our new money. None of us was rich enough to have a dollar bill upon our person.

Of course inertia got in the way. I'd learned the old system and I wasn't going to change my phrasing for anyone. My wife would probably say nothing's changed; we can't agree on how one pronounces the words banana or caramel. For many years afterward I'd use the word 'quid' meaning 2 dollars. I could usually get away with pulling into a petrol station in 1973 and asking for 2 quids worth of petrol. By 1986 that didn't work and I had to give in and ask for 12 dollars worth. Nowadays? Given that I slide my debit card into the slot and enter my PIN it doesn't really matter does it? There's no one to hear me thinking 'that'll be about 10 quids worth.'

Eighteen years later we dropped the dollar bill as paper money. In January 1984 the dollar coin was introduced as a replacement. I was at Hewlett Packard at the time and we had a new intake of graduates. One of them had been assigned, poor bastard, to me as mentor. Jason came trotting up, a nice shiny new golden dollar coin in his hand. 'Here,' he said, 'look at this'. I took it, inspected it and said, 'cool', as I pocketed it.

Poor bastard followed me around for the next hour or so, hoping I'd realise I had his dollar coin in my pocket. Of course I did! It was cruel of me I know but I did put him out of his misery eventually. I can be a bastard sometimes!

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