Counting to 10

A nation throws its money away

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In early July 1967, newspapers reported that some people were having trouble with their home milk deliveries. Householders were confused over what coins they should leave out overnight with their empty bottles. It was not a case of widespread amnesia but a side effect of DC Day—the day New Zealand introduced a brand-new decimal currency. That journalists could find nothing more seri­ously amiss at such a challenging time was cause for national self-congratulation.

The lead up to the money changeover had gone smoothly. Between April and June, officials travelled more than 2800 km by rail, delivering 27 million notes (weighing 30 tonnes) and 165 million coins (700 tonnes) to 384 bank branches up and down the country. It was a high-security affair: two police officers travelled in each wagon and two police dogs in each train. Constant contact was maintained with escorting police cars, which in turn were in touch with the nearest police stations. At every stop, the army was on hand to unload the cash. ‘Operation Overlander’, as it was called, delivered a total of $20 million in notes and coins, and not a cent went astray.

Pressure for New Zealand to modernise its currency had been building for a long time. In July 1902, R.W. St Clair made ‘A Plea for the Immediate Adoption of an All-embracing Decimal Scheme’ in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine. The proliferation of measures for space, time, area, length, weight and currency—to say nothing of cloth, wool, wine and other merchandise—was such, said St Clair, that “not even a University Professor of Mathematics could off-hand correctly enumerate the denominations”.

Others agreed, and in August 1963, the government announced its decision to adopt decimal currency, which some 95 per cent of the world already used at that time. But, though the changeover itself was straightforward, the designs of the new currency, and even what to call it, were not.

To avoid conflict with a unit of weight, St Clair had favoured renaming the pound ster­ling the Britte or sov, “after Britannia, the genius of the British race”. Others suggested crowns or zeals. However, Parlia­ment voted to follow Australia in adopting the dollar, consigning the familiar vocabulary of trade—pound, quid, crown, half-crown, florin, shilling, bob, tanner, penny and the rest—to history.

Design was another matter entirely. When, 17 months before DC Day, the intended coin designs were leaked, the Auckland Star reported a reaction of “shock, dismay, disbe­lief, then wry laughter”.

The Cabinet-approved designs were, indeed, dire. Mostly the work of Francis Shurrock, a retired lecturer at the Canterbury University School of Art, they included a musterer, a rugby player, a Maori mask and Milford Sound. Public indigna­tion was heightened with the publication of the rejected, but superior, designs of Paul Beadle of the Auckland University Elam School of Fine Arts, and images of the stylish new decimal coins about to be issued in Australia.

Five designers—including James Berry of Wellington—were commis­sioned to finalise the designs. Despite an official poll showing widespread public preference for his work, Beadle was bypassed. Instead, the runners-up were chosen.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Finance responsible for overseeing the introduction of decimal currency went on to make even more controversial decisions regarding the dollar. His name: Robert Muldoon.

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