DUNNY paper and baked beans weren’t the only things Australians were squirrelling away during the pandemic, they were hoarding coins, too.
Despite many retailers saying no to cash for hygiene reasons, retiring Royal Australian Mint boss Ross MacDiarmid says COVID-19 forced many people to use cash and stash left over coins in piggy banks, jars and wallets.
“In tough economic times people go back to what they know and what they are familiar with,” says MacDiarmid.
“What we are seeing at the moment is people transacting in notes and when they do their grocery shop, for example, they are receiving the change and putting it away and not spending it.
“There are a lot of coins that are being hoarded at the moment; are they likely to come back in the next 12 months or so? That we don’t know.”
After a decade in the top job, Mr MacDiarmid, who has presided over a period of soaring visitor numbers, the first coloured curved coin produced in the world and supplying circulating coin for countries in the Pacific, is leaving the job next month.
He may only be weeks away from finishing his stint, but Australia’s coin boss still has a long list of things to do, in what’s been an interesting year for the Mint.
“What’s fascinating about covid is it has caused a shift back to people using cash and for lots of different reasons,” Mr MacDiarmid says.
“The ability to have a certain amount of money in your pocket a week means once it’s gone it’s gone, so they are using cash as a means of managing their finances.”
Demand for coins had halved in the last five years, Mr MacDiarmid says, and as 2020 began, he anticipated the echidna-embossed five and the 10-cent piece with its lyrebird, to be elbowed towards their grave.
“We would have done 85 million five-cent pieces in 2012 and we were projecting that would get to as low as 15 million for this calendar year,” says Mr MacDiarmid.
“But that hasn’t happened because of covid and suddenly we have seen a resurgence in five, 10 and 20-cent pieces and the five-cent pieces are likely to be closer to 35 million.”
Despite their place in charity tins and tip jars, Mr MacDiarmid says five and ten-cent pieces will eventually die a “natural death” due to inflation and contactless payments.
“Until such time as the five-cent piece becomes so much more expensive to make, right now it’s about lineball five cents for five cents, I don’t know whether the government needs to do anything more than let it die a natural death.”
There are many things Mr MacDiarmid is proud of during his time at the Mint, not least the fact that international and domestic sales revenue has grown from $25 million in 2010 to $100 million in 2019, successfully offsetting slowing demand for circulating coins.
Tourist visitation has grown from 180,000 to more than 360,000 under his leadership and the Mint has won multiple engineering, export and international product awards.
News of Mr MacDiarmid’s departure came wreathed in praise for his term, which has been described as “successful”.
“Under Ross’ leadership, all of the complex challenges faced by the Mint as a Commonwealth manufacturing enterprise with a strong cultural and tourism role have been successfully met,” says chair of the advisory board, Russell Miller.
“Ross has significantly enhanced the Mint’s reputation internationally, it is a much stronger organisation and institution today thanks to his leadership.”
Surprisingly, Mr MacDiarmid isn’t a coin collector, but he can reel off his favourite commemorative and collectable coins produced during his decade long tenure.
“The detail in the moon landing coin was outstanding,” he says.
“We created a triangle coin with the image of the nurse on the stained glass window at the war memorial, that was beautiful.
“Coins tell a story in their own right… you pick up an Anzac commemoration coin or the commemorative firefighter coins, for example, and they make you stop and reflect.”
Despite all the good things, Australia’s coin boss says, it’s time to finish up.
“You can only do so much and after 10 years, I thought I’d made a sufficient contribution to know I could walk away with the confidence and comfort that the organisation was sustainable into the future.”
A search to find his replacement is underway.