Bucking the system: How 50 years of decimal currency shows the emergence of an independent nation

Last updated 05:00 02/07/2017

There are seven chapters in New Zealand's official banknote story.

Back of the new $5 note.
Stacks of pound notes are fed into the furnace by the Reserve Bank's Eric Vallance after the change to decimal currency in 1967.
As a young finance minister, Robert Muldoon was a disruptive influence during the decimalisation process.
This proposed design for the first twenty cent coin sparked an outcry, especially from Canterbury, because the rugby shirt worn by the player looked suspiciously like an Auckland jersey.
Paul Beadle's design of a Kotuku, or white heron, was edged out by the famous Kiwi design.
Eileen Mayo's striking swordfish design for New Zealand's first twenty cent piece was rejected.
The one dollar notes were phased out in 1991.
The 1967 one dollar note featured a fantail.
The ten dollar 1967 banknote featured a kea.
The Queen was replaced by Kate Sheppard on ten dollar banknotes in 1991.
The first decimal banknotes were released in 1967, and remained in circulation until 1981.
The Queen has aged gracefully on New Zealand's currency, and only appears on $20 bills now.
Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand president David Galt.
Dr Mark Stocker is the curator of the Historical International Art Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
The 1933 one pound note featured a picture of the Mitre Peak.
The front of the 1933 one pound note featured a photo of King Tawhiao, the second Maori king.

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"Don't shed a tear in July next year, for cumbersome pounds and pence," the decimal currency song trilled out of TV sets in the mid-1960s. 

The nation was gearing up to switch from shillings and pounds to dollars and cents, and the many doubters needed to be convinced.

The new system of money would be too complex and confuse shoppers, people argued, and see shopkeepers inflate their prices.

But modernisation won out in the end, and on July 10, 1967 New Zealand joined the dollar club of nations.

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Many historians now see it as an important step along the road to the modern New Zealand we know today, as we tilted our gaze away from mother England, and help usher in a more self-assured national identity.


We might have turned our back on the dollar club group of nations, including the United States, Australia and Canada, and adopted our very own form of currency called the Zeal, had it not been for a pugnacious young finance minister.

Robert Muldoon was not keen on the idea of giving our currency a distinctively New Zealand name. Others suggested and rejected include the 'crown', 'fern', 'tui', and 'kiwi'.

The country hadn't been in a hurry to decimalise, lagging Australia by a year, India and Japan by a decade, staunchly resisting calls from Rex Mason, known in coin-collector circles as the father of decimal currency and one of New Zealand's longest sitting Labour MPs. 

Once the dollar had been won out over the curiously named Zeal, the next big question was how it would look. 

In the run-up to decimalisation, some of the proposed designs were leaked to the press, including a crudely drawn one of a rugby player on a twenty cent coin.

An outcry followed, especially from Canterbury, because the rugby shirt worn by the player looked suspiciously like an Auckland jersey, says Robert Pepping, a numismatist, who studies coins and banknotes.

Muldoon was suspected of being behind the leak.

He then staged a public relations exercise, calling for the populace to vote on their favourite designs.

The winning designs were, for the first time, conceived and developed in New Zealand, though the designer, James Berry, was a British immigrant.

While there was no denying Berry's competence, it was arguable better designs were overlooked by a conservative nation, Stocker said in 2006.

These included those by artist Paul Beadle, including his stunning Kotuku, or white heron.

Beadle effectively ruled himself out of the running by calling Muldoon "a flabby, putty-like slob" and Treasury a "bunch of nincompoops".

The more gracious Eileen Mayo offered her awesome swordfish, but was snubbed by the public.


Some, today, wonder if New Zealand was too conservative in its choices.

Art historians, such as Dr Mark Stocker, Te Papa's curator for historical art, believe Kiwis made a "safe" choice in 1967, and turned down designs that may have proved more popular today.

A conservative choice was always on the cards.

Muldoon was a social conservative, and currency design has always been about function over artistic merit, and winning broad public support.

There's a fair bit that goes into designing a banknote.

Matthew Wright from the Reserve Bank says that's not changed since New Zealand first got its own currency in 1933.

"Currency has to be distinctive and with clear New Zealand visual themes, accessible, able to stand up to regular handling, resistant to being counterfeited, and with a professional design that both reflects its purpose as legal tender, and which is likely to appeal to a wide range of the public."

The main motifs remain largely unchanged: unique flora and fauna, Maori iconography (sometimes used without consultation), the Queen, and the landscape.


Unlike the decimal changeover of 1967, the country's first notes and coins were born out of desperation, rather than aspiration.

In 1933, the global depression was reshaping the world economy.

New Zealand, still using British currency, devalued to make agricultural exports cheaper.

That meant people could take New Zealand's British currency overseas, and it would instantly be worth 25 per cent more, so a lot was smuggled out, leading to a shortage, and a desperate need for our own money.

"People were stuffing their pockets with it when they went to Australia, or England," says  Pepping. 

New Zealand's first coins were immediately embraced by a relieved populace as a symbol of nationhood, partly a reaction to having to stomach pocketfuls of change from their near rival.


The bold Kiwi icons of birdlife, Maori and landscape on the 1933 currency were an assertion of our unique identity, Pepping says.

Kiwis old enough to remember the dignified Tui pennies that circulated before we went decimal will remember them as authentic Kiwiana.

Galt says the designs stood out in an era when British coinage was distinctly heraldic and conservative in design.


Banknotes and coins reflect the societies that adopt them.

The 1940 banknote series, which replaced the "temporary" 1933 notes, had themes reflecting the mind-set and social context of the day, says Wright.

The New Zealand state was celebrating its centenary year, and Captain James Cook featured prominently on the notes, along with characteristic New Zealand scenes and plants, and a vignette of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on the reverse, says Wright. 

When the decimal notes were designed in the mid-1960s, the treaty was dropped.

And with the Maori cultural and political renaissance was still some years away, the treaty only made a reappearance on a commemorative $10 issued for the 150th anniversary of the treaty being signed, celebrating it as a historical event.

"It wasn't until the 1990s that the original decimal design themes were 25 years old and beginning to show their 'period' styling," Wright says.

"New Zealand was emerging from its 'mid-century' mind-set on many levels, and a different selection of themes seemed appropriate."

In 1999, the boldest bank note redesign took place. This is when prominent New Zealand figures such as Lord Ernest Rutherford, Kate Shepherd and Sir Apirana Ngata made their first appearances, on notes made for the first time from polymer, which made them more durable, and harder to forge.

The themes of flora and fauna continued the unbroken tradition started in 1933, but in a bold move, Sir Edmund Hillary appeared on the new $5 breaking the tradition of the monarch being the only living person to make it onto our currency.

Having previously been on all New Zealand banknotes, the Queen was suddenly relegated to the $20 note only, prompting a bit of an outcry from some sections of the public who feared she might soon be left off entirely.

Historian Noel Cox says the Reserve Bank was not making an anti-monarchy political statement. If anything, its rather casual approach to the Queen reflected the attitudes of society.

"It was just a redesign to them," Cox says. "This wasn't an attempt by the Reserve Bank to remove the Queen's image. They didn't consider it that way."

Cox said the Reserve Bank pointed out at the time the Queen remained on all the coins.


When planning for our current set of banknotes released last year - our seventh series - the tradition of spatting over designs wasn't repeated. These were 21st century technocratic updates, improving notes' security features, not redesigns.

The faces remained the same. But new design techniques such as a holographic window, featuring a map of New Zealand and the same bird which appears on the note, gave the notes a particularly modern look. 

Pepping feels we've ended up with coins and banknotes the country can be proud of. "We've done pretty well in terms of artistic merit," he says.

Galt feels the same, but both have a collectors desire to see us buck our parsimonious reluctance to do what the Brits and the Aussies do so much more of, which is issue more commemorative notes and coins, like the 2015 Anzac 50 cent pieces.

It'd make our handfuls of change, and wallet contents more exciting, and give us a chance to celebrate more of our culture and most cherished leaders, so long as they are good and dead, and don't raise too much controversy.


A footnote to the decimalisation story is that imperial currency never entirely went away.

Many were kept as souvenirs, and remain in people's homes to this day.

The Reserve Bank figures show 5 million pounds was never handed in.

While many notes were burned in a furnace, there are 48,800 ten pound notes unaccounted for, and a staggering 1.5m one pound notes.

And if you had one of those tenners, you have the right to rock up the Reserve Bank, and ask for it to be swapped for dollars and cents. Although, it'd probably be worth a whole lot more at auction.

- Sunday Star Times


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