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The dingo ate my penny
Scenes from Australia’s elimination of the one-cent coin

The Australian one-cent coin, which ceased production in 1990, featured a feathertail glider. (Royal Australian Mint)

This week, Canada bids farewell to the penny.

From here on out, stores will round cash transactions to the nearest nickel, but how they do so is up to them.  The government says that businesses are "expected" to conduct their rounding in a "fair, consistent and transparent manner" — and the Department of Finance offers guidelines — but it's all based on the honour system. (Businesses may also continue to accept pennies at their own discretion.)

Never fear, the feds say, "Experience in other countries that have phased out low-denomination coins, such as Australia and New Zealand, has shown that fair rounding practices have been respected."

Is this true? We can't offer a definitive answer. But in searching for one, we learned more than a little bit about Australia's adventures in coin-purging:

August 21, 1990: Australian Treasurer Paul Keating declares that one- and two-cent coins will no longer be issued, and that starting in February 1992 they will be pulled from circulation for good.

August 26, 1990: In a letter to Sydney's Sun-Herald, Eric Risstrom, the national director of the Australian Taxpayers' Association, rages about the potential effect on the economy: "The enormity of Treasurer Paul Keating's decision to stop making 1c and 2c coins is starting to emerge. For example, it now costs 41c to post a letter. Soon it will go beyond the approved 43c right up to 45c — that's nearly a 10 per cent hike. And get a load of this one: Australia Post says people could save money by buying a packet of stamps, with the price of the pack rounded to the even 5c." But he warns that the implications will be even more far-reaching: "With the economy in the mess it's in, what Australia needs like a hole in the head is something which disrupts our pricing structure."

September 2, 1990: Like Risstrom, letter-writer W.R. Don of Woody Point is outraged by the increase to the price of stamps: "The sheer arrogance of Australia Post must take some beating."

October 7, 1990: The Sun-Herald offers a hint as to why it may no longer make sense to keep one-cent coins around: "The price of older sheep has reached an all-time low in most country saleyards. At Orange sales last Wednesday one pen of 105 sheep was sold for $1, less than one cent each. Today, farmers prefer to sell the sheep for next to nothing rather than hang on to them."

June 23, 1991: If you fill out a "coupon" and send it in, you could be one of the lucky winners of the Sun-Herald's historical-currency contest, in which 5000 people are each to receive "British military paper money notes in denominations of 5p, 10p and 50p PLUS a cased pair of 1c (1990) and 2c (1989) coins — the last Australian coins issued for circulation."

September 15, 1991: Melbourne's Sunday Age reports that "The Prices Surveillance Authority has received more calls on the coins than on any other issue, except petrol during the Gulf War. 'People have been caught by surprise in that one and two cent coins haven't gone out of the system quickly,' said a PSA spokesman, Dr David Cousins. … The PSA has received complaints that some authorities had rounded up bills. It said bills should be left at the exact amount, since they were not cash transactions."

February 1, 1992: On the day the coins leave circulation, The Age tells us all about the effect on items that we think are supposed to be candy: "The chairman of the Prices Surveillance Authority, Professor Allan Fels, said the end of copper would not devastate the mixed lolly business, increase inflation or spell the end of the $9.99 bargain…Total prices would be rounded up or down to the nearest five cents. Individual items, such as two cent chocolate Mates, will retain their prices. Coles, Woolworths and Target have announced that they will round all totals down. The authority has provided a telephone line for inquiries and has promised to keep a close eye on traders to prevent profiteering. Professor Fels expects complaints. 'I think there are some passions aroused by these small amounts of money. It's a fact of life that some people get very emotional about one and two-cent pieces.' He said some people would make extra purchases to avoid totals being rounded up. "There will be a few people who make that economic decision that it is worth spending 60 cents on a Freddo Frog in order to save two cents."

February 4, 1992: The Age states that, despite what it reported on its front page three days earlier, one- and two-cent coins remain legal tender.

November 1, 1992: "Redundant one- and two-cent coins are finding new value as scrap metal, copper wire and even bronze statues," the Sunday Age reports. The Royal Australian Mint "calculates the total weight of [all extant one- and two-cent] coins at 20,000 tonnes. Just 4000 tonnes have been returned, and the flow has now been reduced to a trickle. The original estimate was for between up to 7000 tonnes to be returned. 'We don't expect to get anything like that back as so many have been thrown away, lost, used as boat anchors, whatever,' [acting mint controller Chris] Mills said. 'They weren't useful coins in the community. The mark of this was that people were walking past them in the street. That's always a good indicator that a coin is no longer of any use.' … The coins are finding a variety of uses since suffering economic redundancy. A small amount of the metal is bought by artists to cast statues and some is transformed into wire, but the majority is farmed out as scrap metal to dealers in Australia and overseas."

December 30, 1992: Two months later, The Age says that the mint is now having the opposite problem: it's stuck with too much excess change, including "more than $6 million of old one-cent and two-cent coins withdrawn from circulation. These are classified in accounts as scrap awaiting sale and destruction."

June 1, 1993: "When a wine's bouquet is less than heavenly, reach for that jar of old copper coins," trumpets The Age. It turns out that the chemical properties of copper currency can repair some wines that have gone off. If you find a wine that smells like "canned corn" or "wet wool," "try dropping a clean copper coin into the glass, swirling it for a few seconds and then removing it."  But first you should clean the coins "by rubbing them with lemon juice, ammonia or Vegemite, leaving them for 10 minutes, then washing them under the tap."

August 1, 1993: Australia's new Treasurer says that, due to hoarding, only $15 million of one- and two-cent coins have come back to the mint, compared to $65 million worth that are still out there. "They must be keeping them tucked away in piggy banks, under car seats, in lounge chairs and many other places," Gary Johns tells the Sun-Herald. "Some have gone forever and many were snapped up by tourists, especially the two-cent coin was popular with the Japanese because of the frill-necked lizard design."

September 15, 2000: The Games of the XXVII Olympiad open in Sydney. The bronze medals "incorporate metal from melted-down 1c and 2c pieces — coins that have been touched by very many Australians over the years."

• Feb 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM
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