50 years of dollars and cents – what we can learn

Sunday 14 February, in addition to being Valentine’s Day, was the 50th anniversary of Australia’s introduction of decimal currency.  In 1966, Australia retired pounds, shillings and pence to readily adopted dollars and cents.

For an organisation like RESULTS, specialising in advocacy, the introduction of decimal currency, and some of the other major policy and legislative changes in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, provide some valuable lessons.

Achieving any major change requires advocacy and champions

Changing to decimal currency now seems like an obvious measure which we take for granted.  However, it took sustained advocacy to bring about the change.  A Royal Commission into currency and banking had recommended in 1937 that Australia adopt decimal currency. However, it took renewed advocacy in the 1950s to achieve government support, and champions in government to bring about the smooth introduction of decimal currency in the 1960s.

One champion in Government was Dr Neil Davey, who served as the Secretary of the Decimal Currency Board.  When he completed his PhD in economics in 1950s, concentrating on decimal currency conversion, the non-government Decimal Currency Council was leading advocacy to convert the currency from pounds, shillings and pence.

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia:  “Recalling this period, Neil modestly says that he just happened to come in on a wave and was ‘in the right place at the right time.’ But, given his academic qualifications and international experience, he was exactly the right person to help guide Australia through the difficult process of currency conversion.”

Similarly, the policy changes that RESULTS urges government to take seem obvious to us, but we still need to take action to build support, find and develop champions among MPs and officials to ensure these changes happen.

Governments will see other issues as more urgent and important

The long period it took for the Australian Government to actually introduce decimal currency shows that other issues which the Government sees as more urgent or important can take precedence over reforms with longer-term benefits.  Events such as World War 2 and the Korean War, and periods of inflation and occasional economic downturns during this period, led to a lower priority for changing the currency, for example.

Similarly, Governments will see domestic economic or social challenges, or international security and diplomatic situations, as being more important and urgent to deal with than measures to address global poverty.  One of our tasks is to convince elected representatives that now is the time to start taking action to enable all people to have opportunities to access health, education and improve their living standards.  Investing in long-term human development will mean that emergencies and crises are less likely to arise and will have less severe impacts.

The policy or legislative commitment is the beginning of major changes

Our adoption of decimal currency was one of a number of major social changes in Australia in the late 1960sand early 1970s.  In this period, Australia also:

  • Changed the Migration Act in 1966 and 1973 to remove barriers to non-European migration.
  • Voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in 1967 to give the Commonwealth Government powers to make laws affecting indigenous Australians and to count indigenous Australians as residents.
  • Reduced the legal voting age from 21 to 18 in 1973.
  • Through a decision by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in 1972, awarded equal pay to women for equal work.
  • Introduced the metric system in the first half of the 1970s.

A common feature of most of these changes is that the change to the letter of the law or to official policy resulted in only a gradual change in actual practices or social outcomes.  For example, the numbers of non-European migrants increased gradually rather than suddenly after changes to the Migration Act, and we are still producing annual Closing the Gap reports on the living conditions of the indigenous population, indicating that the process which started with the Referendum in 1967 still has a long way to run.

Similarly, an international agreement or declaration, or a policy commitment by our Government, is in many cases only the first stage of success in RESULTS Australia’s advocacy.   For example, we have universal agreements by countries to the Sustainable Development Goals, but we will only see changes to policies and the allocation of resources towards achieving these goals with sustained advocacy and by seeking regular reporting on progress towards the goals and what each government is doing towards achieving them.

The major lesson from these precedents is that RESULTS and other advocates aiming to end global poverty will have plenty of challenges to keep us busy for many years. However, our sustained advocacy is imperative if we are to see change in the world.

by Mark Rice, RESULTS Global Health Campaigns Manager (and a very small child at the time of decimal currency conversion)

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