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The portrait of a banknote

The history of the portraits on Australia’s banknotes is a somewhat complicated one.

Australia is currently the only country in the world to feature a woman on every single banknote; however, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, this is set to change.

At the time of writing, it’s been announced that King Charles III will not replace his mother’s portrait on the Australian $5 note. The Reserve Bank of Australia – backed by the Australian Government – made the decision that a new portrait will instead honour the history and the culture of First Nations people. King Charles III will, however, feature on Australia’s coins.

‘This is a good opportunity to strike a good balance between the monarch on the coins and a First Nations design on the fiver,’ said Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

While most have heralded the change as a positive, the decision has come under fire from many; however, this is not the first time that a change to Australia’s banknotes has caused some controversy.

In 1966, Australia issued its very first decimal series of banknotes, having previously adopted the same system as the United Kingdom with pounds, shillings and pennies. The banknotes included $1, $2, $10 and $20 denominations, with a $5 denomination introduced in 1967. A $50 denomination was introduced in 1973, followed by a $100 denomination in 1984. That same year, in 1984, the $1 banknote was replaced by a $1 coin, and a $2 banknote was replaced by a $2 coin in 1988.

Caroline Chisholm on the old $5 note.

The very first banknotes released in 1966 featured 11 men and the Queen, with the $5 note introduced in 1967 featuring 19th century humanitarian Caroline Chisholm. In 1990, the Reserve Bank announced the introduction of a new design for the notes, with the first being the $5 note. The first in the firing line, the Reserve Bank’s decision to change the portrait of Chisolm to that of the Queen sparked an uproar from the public, and, in particular, women’s groups. The Women’s Electoral Lobby called for 50 per cent of the portraits on the banknotes to be women, while Prime Minister Paul Keating condemned the Reserve Bank’s decision and labelled it a national disgrace. 

As Australia began the new polymer banknote roll-out for the $5 note between 1992 and 1996, the Reserve Bank revealed its decision to feature a woman on every single note – a world-first. As such, Dame Mary Gilmore, Edith Cowan, Dame Nellie Melba and Mary Reibey – alongside the Queen – have adorned Australia’s banknotes since the mid 1990s. But with the Queen’s passing and the announcement of a First Nations design, Australia’s $5 note will undergo another revamp.

Images courtesy of iStock.

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