HomeLifeBanknotes are changing, but where’s King Charles?

Banknotes are changing, but where’s King Charles?

An Australian tradition in banknotes is about to come to an end. Australia’s staunch monarchists might be dismayed to learn that when our next $5 note is designed, the image of Queen Elizabeth will not be replaced by one of King Charles. 

This decision was made by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) last year. The RBA announced that Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait would be replaced with a design honouring First Australians’ history and culture.

But if that seems like snubbing of tradition to you, it may come as a surprise to learn that the QueenI has not always adorned our $5 note. In fact, she only made her first appearance on the mauve banknote in 1995. Australia’s original $5 note featured Sir Joseph Banks on one side and Caroline Chisholm on the other.

What late Australian prime minister Robert Menzies would have thought of our Queen’s ‘demotion’ is, of course, unknown. But we can be pretty certain he would not have been happy about it. It was under Menzies’ prime ministership that Australia ushered in the era of decimal currency. And if he’d had his way, we would not now be debating the design of the 5 dollar note, but the 5 royal note.

A royal ruckus – the introduction of decimal currency in Australia

Australia officially said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence and adopted decimal currency on 14 February 1966. I’ve known that always, even though I was a couple of weeks shy of my first birthday on that day.

My mum is the reason the date has forever been embedded in my brain. She would regularly sing the jingle used to promote the currency change, even years later.

I have to admit, it was a catchy jingle. It was set to the tune of the great Aussie song, Click Go the Shears. Australian TV sets played it ad nauseum leading up to the change.

It obviously stuck in my mind, and she made sure of it, regularly singing the last line, ‘On the fourteenth of February 1966’.

The new currency featured six coin denominations: 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 20c and 50c. Five banknotes were also introduced: $1, $2, $5, $10 and $20. (The $50 note came later, in 1973, and the $100 note arrived in 1984.)

While Queen Elizabeth II had no place on our first $5 note, she has, of course, always featured on the obverse side of all standard issue Australian decimal coins. But she was not overlooked on our banknotes. Her Majesty’s portrait actually adorned our original $1 note. 

However, 18 years after its introduction, as inflation devalued currency, Australia discontinued the $1 note. It was replaced by the $1 coin. Four years later, in 1988, the $2 note suffered the same fate.

Naturally, both the $1 and $2 notes remained in circulation for some years. But as they faded and wore out, Elizabeth’s banknote image became rarer.

Elizabeth’s banknote return

Not everyone saw the disappearance of the Queen’s portrait from our notes as a problem, but nonetheless a ‘solution’ was found. In 1995, a new polymer $5 note was introduced. And what was now our lowest denomination note featured Queen Elizabeth’s image.

For the moment, the late Queen will continue to appear on newly issued $5 notes. But once a new design is agreed upon, she will slowly disappear.

However, as coins have a much longer life than banknotes, we won’t forget what she looked like in a hurry.

Who else was commemorated on Australia’s original banknotes?

When decimal currency was introduced in 1966, the banknotes issued were $1, $2, $10 and $20. The $5 note was actually first issued the following year, with naturalist Joseph Banks on one side and humanitarian Caroline Chisholm on the other.

While Queen Elizabeth was the only person to appear on the $1 note, each of the other denominations featured two prominent Australians.

The original $2 note had portraits of John Macarthur, who helped to establish the Australian wool industry, and William James Farrer, who worked to improve the quality of wheat grown in Australia.

Our first $10 note featured Francis Greenway, an architect whose work can still be seen around Sydney, and our iconic poet Henry Lawson. The first Australian $20 had an aviation theme, with Sir Charles Kingsford Smith on one side and Lawrence Hargrave on the other. Kingsford Smith broke the record for time taken to fly from Sydney to London – 12 days and 18 hours. Hargrave studied human flight and experimented with models, kites and engines.

When our first $50 note was issued in 1973, the honour of having their portraits adorning it fell to Lord Howard Walter Florey and Sir Ian Clunies Ross.

Florey shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for the discovery of penicillin. Ross was a veterinary scientist who became chairman of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The Australian $100 note was introduced in 1984 and featured Sir Douglas Mawson and John Tebbutt. Mawson famously led expeditions to Antarctica and made scientific contributions to the fields of physics and geology. Tebbutt, meanwhile, was a pioneer of Australian astronomy and discovered major comets.

Farewell to our Queen

Australia’s paper notes have long disappeared from circulation, replaced by polymer notes incorporating world-leading security features. Most of the original faces have disappeared, too, replaced by those belonging to other prominent Australians. These include Banjo Paterson, Mary Reibey, David Unaipon and Dame Nellie Melba.

And Queen Elizabeth. Her Majesty will eventually disappear from Australia’s circulating banknotes, but it won’t be for some time yet.

Most of us will remember, if not love, Queen Elizabeth until the day we die, so perhaps the final words should go to Robert Menzies, who hoped the dollar would be the ‘royal’. On the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Australia in 1963, he said: “I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.”

Do you have memories of Australia’s original banknotes? Do you have strong feelings either way about King Charles’ portrait not replacing the Queen’s? Let us know via the comments section below. 

Also read: Choosing the right currency

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.


    • Bazbee, If it were not for Britain, you would not be commenting on any forum in Australia. It was thanks to the British that we have a common language across the country. It was thanks to the British Rule of Law that the country was settled in a controlled and civilised manner that Laws applied to all residents no matter what their race or ethnic or religious origins.
      The Union Jack represents a proud heritage that has kept this country functioning based on the coming together of disparate citizens under one flag with common values.
      The influence of the British Royal family has been held within the Constitution to keep our Parliaments in check to ensure that basic principles are adhered to regardless of political affiliation to the betterment of all Australians.

  1. ronloby it will never be cashless as there is so many places that depend on cash & as they have just learned in Queensland if the electronics go down everything comes to a grinding halt,

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