The Values of A Dollar – $5

Currency is the art of a nation’s soul. When you look at a country’s money, you can see things about what that country values and respects, things that both represent that country, and things that represent that country’s place in history – and what about its history it deems important enough to immortalise, fold up, and stuff into someone’s butt pocket. The things a person has done for the country earn them that place. I’d like to talk some about the nature of Australian money for a little bit, as the topic, I feel, reflects well on us as a country, and lords knows I don’t mind making people feel that my country is awesome. Money is also popular, so let’s see what kind of story we can find in the tale of Australian money?

The Australian dollar does things other countries don’t do, starting by retiring currency after it becomes pointless. We converted from the British shillings-pence-pound system, which was untidy in the 70s, and in the process went to a system that went one cent, two cents, five cents, ten, twenty, fifty, one dollar, two dollar for coins (ignoring silly buggers like the commemorative $200 coin), and when the one and two were no longer able to meaningfully purchase things, we stopped making them. We’re talking about axing the five cent piece as well, in light of current inflationary trends. Also, while we had a one and two dollar note, we retired them in favour of coins, because while some people may whine about metal in their pockets, they’re more cost effective and durable, and also much harder to counterfeit.

Our coins are represented with the Queen on one side, and on the other, the ‘tails’ side, native fauna or, in the case of the $2, an Aboriginal Elder as a sort of ‘Sorry about the Genocide’ token. The bills, however, have a lot more space to breathe, and in order to fill that space we’ve been using diagrams and artwork of important figures from Australian history. That is to say, we have selected figures that we feel were important – and therefore, what we choose to put on our money tells a story about what it is we, as a country, value in our history.

When you look at the American currency, you see, in order, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Ben Franklin on one side, then, on the other, various buildings or parts of government. The money of the United States represents and is represented by the institution of government itself. Now, that’s not inappropriate – the idea of a common democratic society, one of the most primitive designs of same, was in a way the most special thing about America when it started out. That’s it, though. The most common and widespread and easily seen pieces of artwork in the US, made and instituted by the government, are entirely about the government. I can understand why the US citizenry have this strange, quasi-deific attitude towards their presidents, really, considering this reverence. Presidents and treasury secretaries – and most of them presidents of some form of war. The notes are also all similar colours, and can’t readily be changed or improved because it would defy or break with tradition, something I’m sure most of those revolutionary, war-making and world-changing presidents would have been happy to see.

I don’t know if I’m going to make a regular feature of this – so we’re starting small, with the $AUSD 5 dollar bill, which has had three incarnations. The paper bill, the first plastic bill, and the Federation Commemoration bill. Look at the people we have chosen to represent our nation’s history, look at the things we have held up as important enough to be regarded as meaningful, and what they did that we think is worth remembering.

All images have been obtained via Wikipedia, and are hosted on imgur.

Caroline Chisolm

Australian immigration came in three bulk waves; the First Fleet, deporting the criminals; then the Free Settlers, who were mostly trying to build buildings and establish self-sufficiency. Then came after them the second wave of people who were moving into a place where there were people needing services, men needing wives, and farms needing labourers. What initially happened was, predictably for the 1800s, utterly horrible – tales of rape and slavery.

Caroline Chisolm is a woman regarded as so nice in the context that both the Catholic Church and the Church of England are trying to saint her, a move that I don’t think is very precedented. The bulk of her work was reforming immigration, improving the country’s treatment of newcomers, and establishing financial support structures, from the central government, in the name of aiding family units come together and stay that way. Loans and low-interest offers of things that have since become the Department of Housing and the like helped give the fledgling colonies equality and safety, and also the protection of migrants on the vessels coming to Australia. Simply put, this woman wanted to make things safer and better for people – and she fought with all of herself to make it so.

Joseph Banks

England put Isaac Newton on its £1 note, and I’m jealous. As far as the big brains go, it’s hard to find a bigger, better brain than his, and he was one of the true minds of his age. We instead choose to immortalise scientists on our bills – in fact, in almost every printing run of bills, it’s been true that every denomination has had a scientist on it, and sometimes two. Here’s Joseph Banks, who mostly gets remembered for hanging around alongside Captain Cook. Banks was the naturalist who documented Australia’s loopy wildlife, and came back from the journey with a book full of diagrams that England’s scientific community dismissed as clearly the works of a batshit crazy loon.

“Oh, sure, these wattle plants? That makes sense. But seriously, a beaver with a duck’s bill?”

Henry Parkes

I wanted to do a bit of a blurb about Parkes as one of Australia’s founding fathers, but I found Alfred Deakin did it better. From the Wikipedia page: Deakin described him as “though not rich or versatile, his personality was massive, durable and imposing, resting upon elementary qualities of human nature elevated by a strong mind. He was cast in the mould of a great man and though he suffered from numerous pettinesses, spites and failings, he was in himself a large-brained self-educated Titan whose natural field was found in Parliament and whose resources of character and intellect enabled him in his later years to overshadow all his contemporaries”

Parkes died penniless after giving Australia its federal government, taking on and listening to the voices around him. He may not have been a fabulous guy in all respects, but he was a gutter intellectual who strove to help bring this country together from its many parts.

Catherine Helen Spence

Without going into a lengthy discussion of why our voting system is probably better than yours, one of the elements about it that drives its success is that we didn’t go for a simple first-past-the-post voting system. We also allowed women to vote in the first run of voting, which happened in 1901, some twenty years before America (but still not as soon as New Zealand, confound them). Part of what made this happen was the tireless hammering of Catherine Helen Spence, a suffragette, journalist, foster mother and all-around badass.

See, right now in England, there are guys who are kind of reluctant about the idea of letting women preach or become priests. Bit of a thing, they reckon. The Catholic Church doesn’t even want to talk about it. Yet in the 1880s, Catherine Helen Spence was filling in for her pastor, preaching to her congregation. Based on her time as a journalist and her positively futurist view on the progress of science and technology, I gotta wonder about the content of those sermons.

She never married, and she fought for women’s rights, so of course, and travelled the country over giving speeches and shit, so you gotta imagine that this lady probably had a lot of cats, right? You’d be right, if by ‘cats’ you mean ‘orphans.’ She raised three families of adopted children, feeding and caring for them with the money from her writing and journalism.

This is an exercise in what we find important? Well, consider this: When the time came for Australia to remember federation, we considered women’s suffrage as important as the federation itself.

Queen Elizabeth

She’s the fucking queen, what do you want? While it’d be easy to write this one off as just a token representation to the monarchists and make sure Queeny doesn’t feel dissed by her least colony, but in the context of this note I really like her presence here. First, it’s a reminder that we aren’t just one country. We finance ourselves, we take care of ourselves, but we are part of a network of countries, a brotherhood. During World War 2, we sent out the call to the Crown and implored them for kittyhawks – and kittyhawks we were given.

Parliament Building

Here’s the other half of that bill. The Queen is the government we, as Australians were given, but this is the government we gave ourselves. I like this duality – the reminder that we as Australians do not have a ruler for this half of our country. The most commonly used bill is the $5; this is the most common printing of the $5. Therefore, our most well-distributed reminder of our government is that we are made of two parts. Our international concerns, our deference to Queen and Commonwealth, brother countries like Canada and South Africa and New Zealand, and our respect for one another, as shown by our government made not of elites, but of equals.

These are three versions of the five dollar note. Note that we have three women, two men, and a building displayed. We have four politicians, and we have discussions on things like the government assisting in family structure, the protection of the family unit, orphanages, proportional representation and women’s suffrage. Not one of these people was a soldier or declared war on anything – and we have a scientist, as well, something I know will show up in other explorations of the Australian currency.


  1. There was a conversation I had once with someone about Australian currency in which I revered the idea of how colourful it was (seriously, our money is so lame) and how it’s protected by a sort of lamination?

    These things were cool to me.

    Though it reminds me of a comment I read on tumblr the other day about some Australian chick laughing at the idea that we call them bills instead of notes because she pictured a Duck’s Bill with a 2 on it and such (the conversation was on two dollar bills) and I’m just like … it wouldn’t be that odd if you grew up with it. Note is kind of odd to me.

    But yes, for our money you had to have been very important and very white (and usually male) to end up on our money. Susan B. Anthony dollars ( being an obvious exception. I once paid for my hamster with Susan B. Anthony dollar coins even though I could have gotten regular dollars. Was I progressive? Maybe. Did I like the sound of coins jingling? Yeah, more likely.

    Your money and the people on it are often much cooler than what we get, I will admit. :(

  2. That’s still pretty baller. And yeah, the girl whining about notes/bills is daffy. Language is a moving target, dammit.


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