Conscience money in Australia

I’m a regular reader of Ben Sandilands’s Plane Talking blog, where the topic of “conscience money” was recently brought up. So what is it?

Finding a five dollar note underneath your windscreen wiper?

The dictionary definition is as follows:

Money paid because of feelings of guilt, especially about a payment that one has evaded

So how common was it in Australia? Back on the blog post that started my quest, Ben Sandilands had the following to say:

When I started working for newspapers, late in 1960, it was commonplace to see one or two paragraphs a week in the major dailies acknowledging the anonymous but individual payment of conscience money to the taxation office.

And over at the Australian Tax Office website, the ledger book used to record conscience money still exists:

During our 34 year tenancy of Centrepoint some fascinating memorabilia was accumulated. Some of it is on display in this wonderful atrium.

Take, for instance, the ledger for conscience money which recorded – as late as the early 1970s – the contributions of those who chose not to lodge returns but nevertheless anonymously sent us cash!

Details of how conscience money reached the government was mentioned in the Friday 18 February 1938 edition of The Age:

The invariable practice when money wrongfully obtained is returned to a public department is for the conscience-stricken individual to resort to extreme measures to hide his or her identity.

Usually the cash is transmitted by post in an envelope, addressed in block letters, and accompanied only by a brief note is disguised handwriting indicating its nature.

The recipients of the money was more than just the tax office – the Wednesday 1 May 1940 edition of Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper elaborated further:

Even the tax coffers get conscience money

Victorians may not be more honest than other people, but, according to State officials, they seem to suffer pangs of conscience more readily.

The Railways Department this week received a £1 note in the mail as conscience money from an anonymous person who “found £1 on the path outside Thornbury railway station about 14 months ago.”

Receipt of anonymous gifts is fairly common to the railways, tramways, post office (more rarely) — even some leading city stores, and, strangely, the Taxation Department. The “time lag” between deed and conscience is fairly constant — between 10 and 15 months.

Here are brief “categories of conscience money”:—

TRAMWAYS.— Sums varying from 1d. (cash or postage stamp) to several shillings, for unpaid fares, illegally travelling half-price, or pocketing “too much change.”

RAILWAYS.— Usually small sums for travelling without a ticket or using first class compartment on second class ticket. Thornbury case is new reason for awakening of conscience.

CITY STORES.— Rare cases of money returned as overpaid change, sender believing “salesgirl might have got into a row.” Sometimes money is received for goods taken and not paid for — “shoplifting with honesty.”

POST-OFFICE.—Very rare and reasons obscure.

TAXATION OFFICE.—Even more rare and more obscure. Apparently because of incorrect returns.

One justification given for paying conscience money to the tax office appeared in the Wednesday 29 September 1948 edition of The Age:

An anonymous taxpayer who signed himself “Honesty Pays” has forwarded £150 conscience money to the taxation office.

This self-assessed taxpayer said that “bad bookkeeping earlier and a feeling of insecurity owing to conditions due to war caused this to happen.”

He has now forwarded £300 to the department, which he believes has more than paid tax owing by him.

As for what happens to the money once received, Queensland’s Courier Mail newspaper from Thursday 27 November 1952 has more to say on the topic:

Usually conscience money is acknowledged in a brief press statement. Psychologists say most people sleep more peacefully after paying conscience money. But receipt of the money does not close the book.

The Government department tries to find the conscience-stricken sender — not an easy task. The Treasury Department Under Secretary (Mr. Murray) and the Deputy Taxation Commissioner (Mr. Johnston) say that to their knowledge a sender has never been traced.

They also give some further examples of conscience money sent to the Victorian Railways:

The Victorian Railways Department once received an anonymous £1 for ‘accidental spitting.’

Another sent £2, £3, and £5 in separate envelopes to the Victorian Railways for ‘a ticketless train journey 40 years ago.’

However payments of conscience money didn’t have to be small – the Thursday 9 October 1952 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald reported a much larger sum:

£1,308 Conscience Money In Parcel

ADELAIDE, Wednesday. An unknown person left a small paper parcel containing £1,308 conscience money at the Customs head office, Port Adelaide, today. The money was made up of 13 bundles of £10 notes, one £5 note, and three singles.

The person who left the parcel mingled with scores of people entering the building on their way to work and was not noticed.

The South Australian Collector of Customs, Mr. J. Darcey, said the money would be paid into revenue as conscience money. He believed it was the largest amount ever paid in Australia as conscience money.

In Victoria, the amount of conscience money received was recorded in the annual Treasurer’s statement of the receipts of consolidated revenues:

Year Sum
1965-66 $289.00
1967-68 $62.00
1970-71 $150.00
1975-76 $2.00
1979-80 $50.00

The 1984-85 report was the last one to break out conscience money as a dollar value – $2.00 under the “Anonymous Taxpayers” line item.

With that, one would think conscience money was now dead, but this article in the 18 November 2004 edition of the RAAF News shows that the older generation has not forgotten it:

The public relations officer at RAAF Base Edinburgh was surprised to receive a letter earlier this year containing two $50 bills and a handwritten note.

The letter was addressed simply to “RAAF Base Edinburgh” and there were no clues as to the identity of the sender, who wrote:

“When I served in the RAAF in 1946, working in a stores depot and vehicle park in Brisbane, I took some tools and clothing that did not belong to me, and now after all these years I wish to make compensation by giving you $100 which should cover it. Call it conscience money. Could you please pass it on to the right department.”

They say clearing the conscience is good for the soul, so the former member can rest assured the money has been paid into consolidated revenue and the debt is clear.

Footnote

Conscience money still gets a mention in the March 2012 edition of the Queensland Treasury’s Financial Management Practice Manual:

Section 11.24
Conscience money

Where such an amount is received, it should be recognised as conscience money and banked to Treasury’s Administered Account for on-remittance to the Consolidated Fund

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