From Commonwealth to Australia, My Brush With Gough Whitlam
The voice boomed down the phone and caught me a little off guard. It being the middle of an otherwise ordinary afternoon and me being an ordinary coin dealer in suburban Sydney, I wasn’t used to being slammed in the ear by a force of nature while sitting at my desk.
“Andrew Crellin?” the caller demanded.
“Yes, it is” I replied coolly, by now intrigued and unsettled all at once.
Anyone that deals with the general public on a regular basis is used to seeing most colours in the rainbow of humanity over any one day, and I’m reluctant to admit I was steeling myself for a shade further out the spectrum shall we say, when the next phrase resounded down the line.
“This is Gough.”
I don’t normally move in circles where folks refer to themselves by their first name only - Madonna, Prince, Pele and Maradona are as far from my everyday life as the moon, so the cogs in my mind took some time to digest who I was now in an apparently robust conversation with.
It took a few long seconds for the apparently rusted cogs in my mind to turn over sufficiently for me to recall that only a few weeks earlier I’d made a few phone calls in an effort to get a detailed and satisfying answer to a numismatic question that had perplexed me for some years - just why in 1975, the notation on Australia’s currency notes had changed from reading “Commonwealth of Australia” to simply read “Australia”.
From “Commonwealth of Australia” to “Australia”
A reasonable person whose only interest in their nation’s circulating currency is solely focused on knowing just how much of it they have, or how they can get more of it rather easily, will of course ask “Why the hell would you want to know that?”, in much the same manner as one asks “You mean to tell me you actually watch The Batchelor voluntarily?”
A numismatist on the other hand knows that such questions are an itch that must be scratched - psychologists state that one of the cerebral benefits of the hobby of kings is that it allows us collectors to experience a soothing sense of control or dominion over an area of our life that doesn’t exist for us to the same degree as the “real world”.
A gnawing numismatic question invokes not soothing whatsoever, and leaves a burning open wound instead.
Forget the animated and wide-eyed curiosity of the 5 year old that’s able to ask “Why?” a further five times after it’s been explained to them why puppies slobber, the thirst for a satisfying answer to a numismatic answer has driven grown adults to spend countless hours in their local library, rummaging through state archives, ringing, emailing or writing to anyone they think might offer up a piece in the jigsaw puzzle they’re working on.
And so it was I happened to call Gough Whitlam’s office.
Excellent research by Mick Vort-Ronald and others had clearly enunciated the changes made to Australia’s currency throughout 1975, and had identified the exact dates those changes had been made. What hadn’t been as clearly explained was why those two words, “Commonwealth of”, had been removed from our nation’s circulating currency notes.
My (Oxford) dictionary states that the noun Commonwealth originates from late Middle English (originally as two words, denoting public welfare): from common + wealth.
It provides several definitions for the term, some of which may be more relevant to Australia in the 1970’s than others:
1 an independent state or community, especially a democratic republic.
• an aggregate or grouping of states or other bodies.
• a union or commonwealth of democratic, self-governing countries.
• a community of shared interests in a non-political field;
• a self-governing unit voluntarily grouped with the US;
• a formal title of some of the states of the US;
• the title of the federated Australian states;
• (the Commonwealth) the republican period of government in Britain between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
2 (the Commonwealth) (in full the Commonwealth of Nations) an international association consisting of the UK together with states that were previously part of the British Empire, and dependencies.
3 (the commonwealth) archaic the general good.
I as intrigued as to which of the above versions of the term caused such strong feelings in the Whitlam government that they would consider such a change necessary. I remain convinced that it was the connotation that Australia remained a colony within the British Commonwealth that caused the change to be made, however this fixation apparently has no basis in fact whatsoever.
I was still in short pants when Whitlam held sway over Australia, however the lasting impression left on my mind of the many changes his government brought about, as well as the days that brought his government to an end, was that the early 1970’s were a time of high principles, and damn the torpedoes.
Rightly or wrongly, I’ve grown up with the sense that Whitlam and his colleagues knew they had a short window of opportunity to make lasting changes to Australian government and society, and they that they fully intended to bring them to reality, no matter what consequences were to be heaped on those that brought them about once the tide had turned against them.
So I found it unsatisfying, and frankly a little mystifying that the stated explanation for the change was that it was necessary to bring it in line with that seen on our coinage.
I’d exhausted all of my regular information sources - trusted numismatic publications, internet resources and my personal contacts that had knowledge of such matters.
I’d long had the sense that Prime Minister Whitlam had been across each and every change brought about by his government, and was of the opinion he’d be able to add meat to the bones of the accepted explanation I’d already been given.
So, who better to get in touch with than the man in the seat of power at the time?
I don’t recall how I came to even entertain the idea of directly calling a former prime minister to address what seemed to be such a silly question in the grand scheme of things, however it wasn’t long before I’d located his office number, and was calmly explaining myself to Prime Minister Whitlam’s personal assistant.
Explaining this request for an answer to a nigh on frivolous question to a reasonable person was surely an experience almost as tormenting as that felt by a john at a den of ill repute who puts forward a rather fruity request - awkward and exciting all at once. (Not that I have any direct experience of such behaviour.)
To her credit, Prime Minister Whitlam’s personal assistant was professional to the last - once she understood what I wanted to speak to the big man about, she made no comment on the validity of my request, nor on my true position in the world for asking it. She competently explained the hours that the former Prime Minister kept in his office, as well as the tasks he undertook while he was there, and the order that he addressed them in.
In my mind’s eye I pictured a dignified and retired elderly man keeping a strict routine of travelling into his city office - spending time in an orderly environment decorated with a lifetime of personal and professional effects, responding to correspondence, returning calls, and keeping up with the largely diplomatic duties that a former Prime Minister is called upon to fulfill.
I took him to be a man who now quite rightly met all his obligations in good time, addressing them as his time permitted, and leaving questions of whimsy and frivolity until last. I hung up the phone on Mr Whitlam’s PA having concluded that while I would most likely get an answer, it would be in time, and only if the Big Man was actually interested in doing so.
Some weeks passed and I hadn’t received a call, much less an answer, and by the time the booming voice came down the line, I had mentally accepted the idea Mr Whitlam was going to be a source I’d simply not be able to avail myself of.
Which was the perfect time for me to be on the receiving end of a certain demanding baritone.
“I understand that you want to ask me something.”
After I’m sure what was some rather undignified yammering, hemming and hawwing on my part, I explained my situation, acknowledged the passage of time and the apparent unimportance of the question, and also that the answer wasn’t widely known, and that if there was a meaningful reason for the change, it was in danger of being lost forever if it wasn’t recorded.
Former Prime Minister Whitlam prefaced his answer by saying “Well, if I remember rightly…”, and I waited with bated breath for the cogent explanation I’d spent so much time searching for: “…it was to bring our notes in line with our coins.”
I somehow resisted an immediate urge to scream and slam my forehead with force into my hardwood desk, and immediately cursed my tendency to see deep meaning in things where none necessarily exists.
After a dignified moment to compose myself, I (hopefully) tactfully and calmly acknowledged that the change was indeed practical and that it made eminent sense, but also shared my curiosity that in a time of such momentous and sweeping changes, was there a principle or uniquely Australian fundamental value that was being addressed by this change?
“No. I’m quite sure it was just to bring the notes in line with the coins.”
I like to think that I could tell that Mr Whitlam was actually engaged with the question for the briefest of moments, however his engagement passed as quickly as it came about once he’d concluded that was the answer.
No sooner had I thanked him for his time did he say “You’re welcome”, and the phone was down again.
Although I was undoubtedly slightly disappointed by not getting an answer I was satisfied with, I did have a stupid grin on my face at having the audacity to reach out to a man all reason said would have no interest at all in the subject.
I may yet try my luck with Malcolm Fraser.