"[If we become a Republic]
Who'll be on the money?
I'm telling you, if it's John Howard,
You won't say 'tails or heads,'
You'll say 'tails or dickheads.'"
-- Scared Weird Little Guys, 'We Love the Royals'
I have a wallet full of Dame Mary Gilmores and Edith Cowans. But who are these curious visages from our dark and distant past? We stuff their faces into our wallets without regard for their personalities. We snort cocaine through their rolled-up polymer lithographs and we don't even know their names.
The notes are listed in order of ascending value, and the faces are listed in order of front and back. To determine which side is the front, look for the clear watermark - it appears on the right-hand side of the note when you are looking at the front.
The $5 note is the most widely-circulated of all the notes, and in keeping with tradition, it is adorned with symbols of state. This is nothing new; putting symbols of state on the lowest denomination was par for the course back when "hostile takeover" meant seizing your neighbour's donkey.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: in her lithographic glory, a picture which was certainly taken many years ago, abreast of a wattle branch.
There was a small public outcry when this new note was introduced into circulation. The Australian Republican Movement (read "anti-monarchy") argued that in a time of increasing apathy towards the rather distant ceremonial duties of the monarchy, and considering that the Queen's head already appears on Australian coins, it isn't necessary to decorate another monetary unit with an out-dated picture of Elizabeth Mk II, back from when she was more than a vague and irrelevant figurehead (or so they said). But proposals to replace the picture with the Australian coat of arms were rejected by the Reserve Bank of Australia.
Many of these notes were defaced shortly after their release; angry republican youth scratched out the eyes on the image. It's illegal to do that. It's illegal for me to tell you how they did it. The Reserve Bank plucked the notes out of circulation, and that was (as they say) that.
Parliament House: As a less controversial symbol of the state, Parliament House appears on the $5 note in its pointed hill-top glory. The Parliament is shown from the front and the top, and the massive spire is adorned with a flag at full mast (in case you're wondering, it's every bit as phallic as it sounds).
Sir Henry Parkes: Parkes is known as the 'Father of Federation,' which makes you wonder who the mother was; it must have been a breach birth. Parkes was a politician, journalist and ivory turner. He served as the Premier of New South Wales between 1872 and 1891, and led the charge for federation from 1891 up until his death in 1896.
Parkes suggested the name 'Commonwealth' for the unified colonies in Australia and created Centennial Park in the centre of Sydney. You can't drive in Centennial Park if you're on a learner's permit, but you can ride a horse in it; Parkes was about as old-school as they come. The suburb of Parkes in Canberra and the town of Parkes in New South Wales are named after him. The latter contains the historically-important Parkes Telescope, as featured in the movie The Dish; meaning that the most important thing about Parkes is that once you're in it, you can look very far away from it.
Catherine Helen Spence: The Scottish-born Spence was a pioneer activist for women's rights in Australia. During the late 1800's, she published many books on subjects such as social law and regional history. She became South Australia's first female preacher when she gave a sermon to an Unitarian congregation in Adelaide. She was the first female political candidate and she fought hard to gain voting rights for women. In 1894, South Australia became the first Australian colony to give women the vote, largely due to her influence. So the next time you're at the polling booth, say a quiet thank-you to Catherine Helen Spence; if it wasn't for her, you could have stayed in bed.
Oh God no AB 'Banjo' Paterson:
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had etc. etc. etc. ...
Paterson was a folk poet at the turn of the 20th Century. Although he wrote prolifically about the Australian countryside, he only lived there until his early teens. Paterson worked in law and journalism, acting as a war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald in South Africa during the Boer War, and he served in World War I as an ambulance driver.
But his poetry made him famous; it is his legacy in Australian culture. His most famous work, The Man from Snowy River, is inscribed on the $10 note along with a picture of the man himself in a dashing hat. Waltzing Matilda and Clancy of the Overflow are also his fault. Australian school students, required to read hours and hours of Banjo Paterson poetry, get a nervous twitch in their eye whenever you mention Rio Grande's Last Race.
Dame Mary Gilmore: Another of Australia's great pioneers in political and social reform, but as opposed to Banjo Patterson, she got egalitarianism instead of a nice hat. She was a popular writer of prose and poetry at the turn of the 20th Century (most people were obliged to write poetry at the time). When she campaigned for the Australian Worker to start a page for women in 1908, the editor Henry Lammond offered her a job writing it. And how. She campaigned for old people, young people, women, Aboriginies and workers - running the whole gamut of social causes at the time. Her war-time poetry was lauded by General Douglas Macarthur (of all the people) and she wrote a column for the Tribune until her death in 1962.
Mary Reibey: Mary was sent to Australia as a seventeen-year-old girl for horse-stealing, and later became one of Australia's great pioneer businesswomen; if that isn't the Australian spirit, I don't know what is. A few years after she was convicted and banished to Australia, she married a naval officer, who started his own cargo and shipping business. Upon his death, Mary assumed control of the company and quickly became one of Sydney's prominent business leaders. She was also noted for her contributions to charity and education (which was the style at the time). She worked on George Street and lived in Newtown - Sydney's first female yuppie. She died in 1855.
John Flynn: The Reverend John Flynn was a pioneer in Australian aviation, during the first half of the 20th Century. Through his work for the Presbyterian Church, he highlighted the problems and needs of remote Aboriginal communities in Australia. He helped to create the Australian Inland Mission, which built strategically-located medical facilities in the Australian outback. Flynn had grand plans for an aerial health service that could reach the innermost regions in Australia, and after buddying up with his old friend Huson Fysh (soon to found QANTAS), he created the AIM Aerial Medical Service, which later evolved into the Royal Flying Doctor Service. He campaigned vigorously for resources and donations to make the Service the finest aerial medical service in the world. Then, convinced that this wasn't enough charity for one man, he popularised pedal powered radio, which brought thousands of rural farmers closer together. But he wasn't all business and charity; he married his secretary and smoked a pipe. What a guy.
David Unaipon: David was an ideas man! As an Aboriginal teenager late in the 19th Century, he became fascinated with science, philosophy and music. By his early thirties, he had invented basically everything, including better sheep-shearing devices and mechanical things that harnessed the mighty power of spinning. He also wrote passionate works about Aboriginal life and became the first published Aboriginal writer. Through his highly successful literature, he campaigned hard for better relations between the Government and Aboriginal communities. Being the aforementioned ideas man, he devised many schemes and plans to better manage community relations.
Edith Cowan: In keeping with tradition, Edith Cowan was a social pioneer, feminist and political mover-and-shaker. She has one up on every other woman on this page, though - she was the first female Member of Parliament. She is the poster-girl for great social and feminist works - strong beliefs in the value of education; strong supporter of sex education in schools; she pioneered groups and Guilds that created women's hospitals and shelters; she helped create the National Council of Women; she worked for the Red Cross and basically every other charity with a good cause. She ran for West Australian Parliament a year after the bar for women was removed, and she campaigned hard for equal citizenship and inheritance rights for women. For all of this, she had an Electorate named after her.
Dame Nellie Melba: The Dame was Australia's first popstar, born in 1861. She became the most famous soprano of her time. She was so famous that she had a permanent dressing room at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. She sang in London, Paris, Milan and New York. She sang at war concerts. She sang at old Parliament House back when it was new Parliament House. She sang in the shower. You couldn't shut her up. By the end, she was ridiculously famous and was made Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, a title not nearly big enough for her phenomenal career. Also, the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier invented the dessert 'Peaches Melba' in her honour.
Who the heck is Sir John Monash: If you don't attend Monash University, you're excused for knowing nothing about Sir John Monash. Monash was one of Australia's great military men. He studied law, engineering and arts at Melbourne University (he couldn't go to Monash University because it wouldn't be named after him for another 74 years). He joined the University Company batallion, and rose rapidly through the ranks as World War I approached. During the War, he led his troops at Gallipoli (which wasn't his fault, if you're wondering), Messines, Passchendaele and Hamel. By this time he reached the dizzying heights of lieutenant-general. He also pioneered the "close artillery barrage" or "walking barrage" that barraged the Allies' way to victory1. After the war, he helped to repatriate his troops and continued to advise the government on military affairs. He became vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and upon his death, a quarter of a million people paid their respects at his funeral.
Primary source: http://www.rba.gov.au/CurrencyNotes/people_on_notes.html
See Australian currency for the physical details of Australian notes.
1 This information was usefully supplied by kalen. Thanks, kalen!