OTTAWA - The country will be penniless by next January if New Democrat MP Pat Martin has his way.
Not broke, just without a one-cent coin. Martin on Wednesday introduced a private member's bill to kill the penny. He said the modern Canadian penny is 100 years old this year and it's time to get rid of it. "We believe that at the same time as we have a birthday party for the penny we should have a funeral," he said.
He said there are 20 billion pennies out there - that's around 60,000 tonnes of them - but they don't circulate. Instead, they tend to accumulate in jars and bottles and old biscuit tins tucked away under the bed.
The effort to kill the coin - the third try in the last 20 years - may come to nothing, however.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said it's not high on his list of things to do.
"It's not a priority for us now," he said.
"I should make it clear that we look at the penny and see whether something ought to be done. But, as I say, it's not a priority right now."
But others agree with Martin that the humble penny has outlived its usefulness.
John Palmer, an economics professor at the University of Western Ontario, says there's no place for the coin.
"The simple fact is that prices and incomes are somewhere between 20 and 100 times what they were a century ago, and there is no reason to keep meaningless little coins like the penny and even the nickel around - they won't buy much, if anything, anyway," Palmer said in an e-mail.
"With so few of them used in transactions, and a copper and zinc mines' worth of pennies sitting stagnant in jars, it's time to relegate the penny to its proper place - the history books next to half-penny and the farthing.
"With the reality of today's economy, the dime is the new penny."
Although the Royal Canadian Mint says it costs 0.8 cents to make a penny, Martin said that just covers the metal. Add in labour and the cost of hauling the coins around and it's more like 4.5 cents each, or $130 million a year.
"Making cents makes no sense," he said.
"It's not only an expensive nuisance, it's wasteful, I argue, to spend $130 million on something nobody needs and nobody wants."
He admits that there is a certain fondness for the little coin.
"The penny's cute, nobody wants to attack the penny."
But that sentimental feeling, perhaps rooted in childhood memories of penny candy, doesn't change the fact that the coin doesn't buy anything anymore.
Martin pointed to the trays that sit beside so many cash registers; take a penny, leave a penny.
"You don't see a dish of free loonies."
His bill would abolish the coin on the Jan. 1 after final approval of the legislation. It would allow a certain grace period to redeem the home stashes and will require prices to be rounded up or down to the nearest nickel.
A 2007 survey by the Mint found a majority of small retailers were in favour of abandoning the penny, while consumers were split.
Grace Yeun, who has run a small smokes and souvenir shop in downtown Ottawa since 1939, said she wouldn't mind killing the penny, but wondered how her customers would react to having their prices rounded up.
"I'd feel guilty about charging them more."
The penny has had a varied history. It began as a coin the size of today's quarter, struck from copper. By 1996, even though the coin had shrunk, there were two cents worth of copper in the one-cent coin, so the mint came up with a new design which is 94 per cent steel.
The penny originally carried the face of the monarch and a simple "One Cent" inscription on the back. That was later replaced by the familiar spray of maple leaves. For the centennial in 1967, the leaves were replaced by a dove with outstretched wings.
Other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have done away with their equivalents of the penny without incident, Martin said.
"The currency of the day has to keep up with the economy of the day," he said. "We used to have a 25-cent bill that was called the shinplaster."
He conceded, though, that he doesn't know what will happen to all the old adage's involving pennies, beyond suggesting they'll have to adjust.
-A nickel for your thoughts.
-A penny saved is rubbish.
-See a penny, ignore it.
-Be penny-wise and who cares?
-Small-time stuff will be nickel-ante.
-A bad penny will be worth the same as a good one - nothing.
-And, of course, no one will have two pennies to rub together.
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