Holt's folly: one royal we rejected

This week marks a momentous Australian anniversary. Fifty years ago, the name on the money in your pocket hung in the balance. It could have been the dollah, the dinkum, the dauler or the deena. You know how it all worked out but there was a right royal stumble on the way.

This week marks a momentous Australian anniversary. Fifty years ago, the name on the money in your pocket hung in the balance. It could have been the dollah, the dinkum, the dauler or the deena. You know how it all worked out but there was a right royal stumble on the way.

In the wake of the announcement in April 1963 that pounds, shillings and pence were to be ditched in favour of decimal coinage, the whole country had an opinion about what the new money should be called. The kwid, the champ, the deci-mate and even the hughes were among hundreds of names suggested.

There were other, more tempered possibilities - the austral and the emu had their supporters - but one name was the standout, the obvious and best choice, and on June 5, Treasurer Harold Holt revealed all. Our currency would be, he told Parliament and an expectant nation, the royal.

Holt said that after a "close and careful examination", not one of the other possible contenders had been able to beat it.

None "would be fully acceptable to the public", he said. According to the Treasurer, they lacked "such desirable attributes as brevity and pleasing sound".

Royal was a dignified, distinctive name, Holt said, with the advantage of emphasising Australia's link with the Crown. These ties went deeper with the minor denominations. The royal was divided into 100 cents, with the coins named after their pre-decimal predecessors - the crown (50 cents), the florin (20 cents) and the shilling (10 cents).

The public, Holt said, would get used to the idea of the royal once the novelty had worn off. He was dead wrong.

Across Australia the royal met with almost unanimous disapproval and scorn.

The Labor leader, Arthur Calwell, said the name was a product of "antiquated thinking". A poll in The Sun a few days later found 95 per cent of Victorians were against it, while the leader writers of The Age thundered: "It is obvious that the government has misjudged public opinion on this matter."

The letters pages of the newspapers were filled to bursting, with many readers echoing an M. Davoren from Mount Waverley, who called the royal an "insult to the Australian people". Another, (Mrs) Gertrude McNair of Kew, wrote: "I think I am expressing the sentiments of most of my neighbours in deploring what must be widely regarded as a disastrous and laughable choice."

There were a few voices in its favour ("Good on the royal," wrote an R.W. Eddolls. "The very word has a noble and romantic air") but, noble or not, most of the country, from shopkeepers to business and union leaders, hated it.

Some blamed Robert Menzies' for the choice. Graeme A. Hood from Flemington wrote: "When the sentimentality of a Prime Minister takes precedence over the wishes of the people one begins to wonder just what sort of government we have."

Over the next few months the look of the new money was planned. No stamp or coin sketches were made but the Reserve Bank tried out some options. Mostly based on the look of the existing Australian pound notes, the royal family featured explorers such as Flinders and Cook, indigenous art, flocks of sheep and, of course, the Queen.

Meanwhile, the public debate - and the rising tide of antipathy - continued. The matter reached such a fever pitch that Holt's wife, Zara, received death threats.

One read: "Next time the hoax will not be a hoax and it will be the real thing if you do not try and persuade your husband, Mr Harold Holt, to change the name of our new decimal currency to something more topical than royal." The letter was signed: "Sincerely Yours. From 25 very loyal Australians."

Another, somewhat presciently, said: "Mrs Holt, your ignorant arrogant husband will leave you a widow in the near future."

The Treasurer, not known to possess a strong regard for his own personal safety, dismissed the letters as the work of cranks and said he wouldn't take threats seriously.

Nevertheless, the royal was sinking fast and, by July, Holt knew the gig was up. On the 24th, according to secret documents released in 1993, he told his cabinet colleagues that the royal had been a terrible mistake.

They toyed with a few other ideas: the austral rose again, briefly, until Mr Holt quashed it on the grounds of pronunciation. The Australian drawl, he warned, could easily reduce "14 australs" to "40 nostrils".

The "government parties" discussed the matter over the next few weeks, but the royal was dead in the water. On September 18, Holt rose in the parliament to announce that Australia's decimal currency would be the dollar. The royal was to be quietly forgotten.

There was general rejoicing, with many echoing Victorian Opposition Leader Clive Stoneham, who called it "a triumph for common sense".

But though the royal (and the crown, florin and shilling) was dead, the choice of the dollar to replace the pound did not gain mass approval. Leonie Sterling from Burwood told The Age: "I feel so let down [that] I want to cry." An L. Cunnington of Gardenvale was more cutting: "So now it is the dollar. What a dreary race of copyists Australians are."

Nonetheless, the final choice had been made, and the dollar it was and has remained. Holt's brief spell as prime minister began in January 1966. Three weeks later, on February 14, 1966, the pound was consigned to history and Australia's currency - bedecked with a royal's visage but not named in her honour - became the dollar.

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