A long time coming
Changing New Zealand’s currency to a decimal system was suggested from the early 1900s. A government-appointed currency committee considered decimalisation in 1933, but decided against it because of costs associated with the change, and the depressed economic conditions.
The power of 10
Decimal currency is a money system in which the units are parts or powers of 10. There are 100 cents to every dollar, which makes monetary calculations simple.
Decimalisation gained traction in the 1950s, when Labour MP Rex Mason submitted a series of private member’s bills to Parliament while in opposition. A committee set up by the Labour government in 1957 recommended decimalisation. By the 1960 general election the Labour and National parties both supported it.
In 1963 the National government announced that New Zealand would switch to decimal currency on 10 July 1967. The process was overseen by then under-secretary for finance and future prime minister Robert Muldoon.
Fern, tūī, zeal, Muldoon
In his 1974 autobiography, The rise and fall of a young Turk, Robert Muldoon recorded some of the different name suggestions for the new currency – crown, dollar (which the government favoured), double crown, doubloon, fern, royal, tūī, zeal and zealer. According to him, ‘Muldoon’ was even suggested. Australia had chosen ‘dollar’ for its new decimal currency in 1963 and this was the most popular option in a New Zealand newspaper poll. The government decided on dollars and cents.
Third series banknotes
The new $1, $2, $5, $10, $20 and $100 banknotes were designed by a New Zealand committee in consultation with banknote printers Thomas De La Rue and Company of London. They all featured the same design on the front, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and a watermark panel depicting Captain James Cook. Each denomination had a different design of native birds and plants on the reverse, and was distinguished by colour. They were embellished with complicated geometric patterns, including Māori iconography, to make them less vulnerable to counterfeiting.
The new coins were in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents. Unlike the banknote designs, which were produced in private and uncontroversial when released, the coin design process was highly public and contentious.
View of an artist
Paul Beadle, a professor at Elam School of Art at Auckland University, wrote to Prime Minister Keith Holyoake complaining about the open design competition. He believed artists should have been invited to submit designs from the beginning, commenting that ‘the introduction of an entirely new coinage … is a rare moment in history … and it is the occasion for New Zealand to stimulate the imagination and recognise the ability of her own specialists. Any denial of them makes a mockery of the University Schools in which they study.’1 Beadle was invited to submit designs but they were not favoured, possibly because of his ongoing and critical outspokenness on the issue.
The Treasury wanted the new coins to be ‘distinguished and worthy symbols of New Zealand’.2 The government ran an open design competition in 1964. This was for the reverse (‘tails’) side – the obverse (‘heads’) side was to contain, by tradition, a portrait of the British monarch. 156 people submitted 624 designs.
A Coinage Design Advisory Committee (CDAC) was established by the government to manage the design process. The members were unimpressed with the general calibre of the submissions and instead invited 14 artists to present designs.
In 1965 shortlisted designs were sent to the Royal Mint in England for comment. The artists were Milner Gray (Britain), Eric Fraser (Britain), A. H. McLintock (New Zealand, and also a member of the CDAC) and Francis Shurrock (New Zealand).
The Royal Mint was highly critical and dismissed most of the designs. As a result five more artists were invited to submit designs. Drawings of those sent to the Royal Mint were leaked to newspapers, and public response was very unfavourable. The government then published all the artists’ designs, and allowed the public to vote on them.
Dollar coin or note?
James Berry was commissioned to design a $1 coin in the lead-up to the decimal currency change in 1967. The main design featured a kiwi and a taiaha (Māori spear) crossed with a black rod (a staff symbolising a parliamentary office) on the reverse side. However, the idea was abandoned and the new $1 was a banknote instead.
London-born New Zealander James Berry emerged the public favourite, but the CDAC submitted a larger list of various designers’ work to the government. In 1966 the government, following the public mood, chose Berry for all six new coins. The designs were a fern (1 cent), kōwhai flower (2 cents), tuatara (5 cents), koruru or Māori carving of a head (10 cents), kiwi and fern (20 cents) and James Cook’s ship the Endeavour (50 cents).
In 1981 the banknote printer was changed and the Queen’s portrait was updated. A $50 note was first issued in 1983.
One- and two-cent coins were withdrawn from circulation in 1990 and a new 20-cent piece featured a reproduction of a carving of the 18th-century Te Arawa chief Pūkākī. The following year $1 and $2 coins replaced notes. The $1 coin featured the kiwi from the old 20-cent piece, and the $2 a kōtuku (white heron).
In 1992 the Reserve Bank issued a completely redesigned series of banknotes. Queen Elizabeth was replaced on all banknotes except the $20 by prominent New Zealanders: mountaineer Edmund Hillary ($5), suffragist Kate Sheppard ($10), Māori politician Āpirana Ngata ($50) and scientist Ernest Rutherford ($100). Each banknote had a different set of native birds and plants on the back. Māori tukutuku designs were part of the security patterns.
From 1999 banknotes were made of polymer (plastic) instead of paper. In 2006 the 5-cent coin was withdrawn and the 10, 20 and 50-cent coins were made smaller and lighter.
Further banknote security enhancements, including a 'puzzle number' and raised ink, were introduced in a new series of brighter $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 notes released in 2015 and 2016.
New Zealand currency overseas
The New Zealand dollar is the official currency of the Cook Islands, Tokelau, Niue and the Pitcairn Islands.