Australia’s $5 note to feature portrait honouring indigenous history instead of British monarch

Plan not to have Britain’s King Charles III on note generates fierce debate

Australia's central bank announced it will erase the British monarch from its banknotes, replacing the late Queen Elizabeth II's image on its $5 note with a design honouring indigenous culture. Photograph: Mladen Antonov/Getty Images

Britain’s King Charles III will not feature on Australia’s $5 note after a decision by the Reserve Bank to replace Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait with a design “that honours the culture and history of the First Australians”.

With the Australian government backing the decision, the move to balk at the presumed tradition of having Australia’s head of state on the note has already generated fierce debate.

Australia’s opposition leader, Peter Dutton, weighed in shortly after the announcement on Thursday on Sydney radio station 2GB, saying the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, would “have been central” to not placing the king on the note and should “own” the decision.

“I think it’s another attack on our systems, on our society and our institutions,” Mr Dutton said.

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The Australian Monarchist League also disapproved, accusing Mr Albanese – who is a long time supporter of Australia becoming a republic – of “trouncing Australian democracy”.

“It is virtually neo-communism in action,” said Philip Benwell, chair of the league.

However, Australian Greens party senator and Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman Lidia Thorpe called the change a “massive win for the grassroots, First Nations people who have been fighting to decolonise this country”.

Ms Thorpe has previously called for the Aboriginal actor and activist Uncle Jack Charles, who died in September, to feature on the note.

“We just lost a king in our own country, who was subjected to colonial violence from the moment he was born,” Ms Thorpe said at the time.

“We owe it to him, and First Nations people, to remember King Jack Charles and end the stolen generation once and for all. Uncle Jack is a great candidate for the $5 note.”

The Australian treasurer, Jim Chalmers, told reporters on Thursday the change to the $5 note was the right decision.

“This is a good opportunity to strike a good balance between the monarch on the coins and a First Nations design on the fiver,” Mr Chalmers said.

The Australian Republic Movement chairman, Craig Foster, said Australians should only see themselves in national symbols.

“To think that an unelected king should be on our currency in place of First Nations leaders and elders and eminent Australians is no longer justifiable at a time of truth telling,” Mr Foster said.

According to polling in October by the Sydney Morning Herald, voters preferred the $5 note to feature an Australian, with 43 per cent voting as such and 34 per cent saying the king was their choice.

In September when the debate on the $5 note initially flared, Mr Albanese refused to be drawn on his view. But he said advocates for Australia becoming a republic were urging that an Australian feature on the $5 note, which is the most widely used note in Australia.

After the queen’s death, the long-term debate on whether Australia should become a republic was reignited, with the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, using his condolence message upon the queen’s death to push the cause. This was in contrast with the Australian Republican Movement, which temporarily suspended campaigning after her death.

First pound notes featuring King Charles unveiled by Bank of EnglandOpens in new window ]

Australia held a referendum that ultimately voted no on whether Australia should become a republic in 1999. The change to the $5 note comes as Australia is expected to vote in another referendum by the end of the year – to recognise First Nations Australians in the constitution and enshrine an indigenous voice to parliament on policy matters that affect them.

A spokesperson for Australia’s Reserve Bank said it “has a proud history of recognising the culture and history of the First Australians, including on Australia’s banknotes” and will consult traditional owners on the design. They said the other side of the $5 banknote would continue to feature the Australian parliament.

“The new banknote will take a number of years to be designed and printed. In the meantime, the current $5 banknote will continue to be issued. It will be able to be used even after the new banknote is issued.”

Australia’s $50 banknote features Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon, who was an author, activist, inventor, musician and preacher.

Before the introduction of polymer banknotes, paper $5 notes featured philanthropist Caroline Chisholm. – Guardian