Staff/Fairfax

Harold Holt

Liberal26 January 1966–19 December 1967

Harold Holt became Australia's 17th prime minister when Robert Menzies retired from Parliament in January 1966.

Harold HoltLiberal

Member of the Privy Council (1953), Order of the Companion of Honour (1967)

Born

5 August 1908

Sydney, New South Wales

Died

17 December 1967

Cheviot Beach, Victoria

Partner

Zara Holt

Party

Liberal

Harold Holt had ambitions, but they were more for the country than for himself. He considered that Australia needed to become more independent in policy and practice, including in relation to Britain. He took pride in 'not stepping over anyone's dead body' to ascend to the position of prime minister.

Holt began work as a solicitor, but was urged by a number of acquaintances including Menzies to run for parliament, and stood for the United Australia Party (UAP) against James Scullin in the seat of Yarra in 1934. The loss was only a temporary setback, with Holt entering parliament in 1935, at just 27 years of age. In 1940 Holt enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a gunner, with parliamentarians receiving military pay in addition to their parliamentary allowance and being given a 'pair' during parliamentary divisions. Later in 1940 he was recalled to the ministry by Menzies, following the death of three ministers in an air crash in August that year. Holt served patiently as Deputy Leader for a decade, before being elected unopposed to the leadership of the Liberal Party just a few hours after Menzies announced his retirement in 1966. Despite a significant parliamentary career spanning more than three decades, Holt is often remembered for his tragic drowning off the Victorian coast. Responses to his death included a plaque on the rock floor of Cheviot Beach and the naming of a U.S Navy warship, and a Melbourne swimming pool, in his honour.

Milestones

  1. 1966

    Senator Annabelle Rankin appointed Minister for Housing

    The Holt ministry includes Senator Annabelle Rankin as Minister for Housing. She is the first Australian woman to administer a federal government department.

  2. 1966

    Introduction of decimal currency

    On 14 February 1966 decimal currency is introduced in Australia. Discussions in Australia about a decimal currency had started as early as 1901.

  3. 1966

    Australian task force committed to Vietnam

    On 8 March 1966 it is announced that the Australian battalion in South Vietnam will be replaced by a larger task force under Australian command, consisting of 4500 men.

  4. 1966

    Changes to the White Australia policy

    In March 1966 the Holt Government introduces significant changes to the White Australia policy, lowering the requirements for non-European entry, residency and citizenship.

  5. 1966

    Pine Gap defence facility established

    On 12 September 1966 Australia enters into an agreement with the United States for the establishment of a joint defence space research facility at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory.

  6. 1967

    The 1967 Referendum

    In the Commonwealth referendum on 27 May 1967 more than 90 per cent of Australians voted 'Yes' to removing two references in the Australian Constitution which discriminated against Aboriginal people. This meant that the Federal Government could make laws relating to Aboriginal people and also that they would be counted in the census.

  7. 1967

    Passport changes

    References to 'British' were removed from Australian passports in August 1967 and 'British subjects' was taken out of the Nationality and Citizenship Act.

  8. 1967

    Council for Aboriginal Affairs established

    On 2 November 1967 the Council for Aboriginal Affairs is established. It was to advise on the formation of national Aboriginal policy and provide linkages between the states and relevant Commonwealth departments.

  9. 1967

    First satellite launched

    The first Australian satellite WRE SAT 1 is launched from Woomera in South Australia on 17 November 1967. Australia is only the third country to launch a satellite from its own territory. The satellite carried out scientific tests measuring the composition of the atmosphere and solar radiation.

Harold Holt jostled during a November 1966 election rally in Rockdale
NAA: M4294, 7
Harold Holt jostled during a November 1966 election rally in Rockdale

Parliament

Holt was committed to his parliamentary duties to the point of 'slavishness', with substantial experience of the requirements of managing parliamentary business gained from a decade as the Leader of the Government in the House of Representatives. The Holt Government's election victory in November 1966 greatly reduced the number of Labor parliamentarians, and Arthur Calwell's retirement brought Gough Whitlam to the leadership. Holt was under pressure, within his party and beyond, to step up and perform well in Parliament by comparison with the new Opposition Leader. The half-Senate election on 26 November 1967 was expected to extend the 1966 election success, instead the government lost control of the Senate. Throughout 1967, Holt faced significant pressure in Parliament over lengthy, unresolved issues including allegations about misuse of Royal Australian Air Force VIP flights, which centred on the extent to which passenger lists for these flights were available.

Party

The 1966 federal election held ten months after Holt became prime minister was dominated by the issue of Australia's commitment to the Vietnam War. The commitment was denounced by the Labor leader Arthur Calwell, establishing Labor as the anti-war party. The Australian public confirmed their support of the action taken by the Holt Government, with the Coalition returning with a majority of 41 seats. Holt now had a very large and ambitious backbench, but did not take the opportunity for significant renewal in Cabinet. Holt did not have the authority of Menzies and was considered by some colleagues to be too loyal and nice. With party mavericks, he appealed to their sense of fair play, rather than taking tougher action against them. Holt experienced a revolt by a number of backbenchers, over what they viewed as the inadequacy of the Spicer Royal Commission into the HMAS Voyager disaster. Holt bowed to the pressure and announced a second royal commission, without consulting his Attorney-General or his Cabinet.

Partnerships

During his visit to the United States in June 1966, Holt formed a close personal relationship with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. In a speech at the White House, Holt departed from the prepared text and enthusiastically declared that Australia will be ’all the way with LBJ’ in relation to the Vietnam War. The remark created a furore in Australia, where it was variously described as servile, cringe-worthy and trivial. Holt was surprised by the reaction to the comment and stated that it ‘doesn’t mean, certainly, that Australia has any lack of independence of mind…’ On hearing of the criticism, Johnson sent Holt a personal letter of support. In October 1966, in the lead-up to the federal election, Johnson became the first American president to visit Australia. Holt returned again to the United States in June 1967. The disappearance of Holt in December 1967 greatly shocked Johnson, who came to Australia for his memorial service. In an address to the Cabinet, Johnson compared the impact of Holt’s death to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Tony Eggleton, who was press secretary to both Holt and Gorton, recalls Johnson reflecting on his relationship with Holt, after meeting his successor Gorton, saying ‘Tony. It’s just not the same’.

People

During the 1966 federal election campaign Holt faced some of the most disorderly crowds witnessed in Australian politics. In part this was sparked by the arrest of the first conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, the young teacher William White. At an election rally in Sydney on 24 November 1966, Holt was abused, spat on and punched by members of a crowd that contained up to 1000 anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. Holt was reported in newspapers as saying that  ‘the meeting was stimulating, but I must confess the last 20 yards outside were the most rugged I have encountered in 31 years of campaigning.’ He had been hit on the head and shoulder with a placard as he was escorted to his car. The Rockdale demonstration followed an earlier incident on 21 June 1966, where Labor leader Arthur Calwell was shot at while sitting in his car at the end of a rowdy election meeting in Mosman Town Hall. There were now calls for political leaders to have permanent security protection, and Holt called for legislative changes that would curb ‘excesses which stifle democratic processes.’

Sources

Geoffrey Bolton, Paul Hasluck: a life, UWA Publishing, Crawley, 2014

Troy Bramston, All the way, and beyond, The Australian, 4 November, 2013

Tom Frame, The life and death of Harold Holt, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005

Ian Hancock, Harold Edward Holt, 26 January 1966 – 19 December 1967, in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland Publishers, Sydney, 2000   

Ian Hancock, Holt, Harold Edward (1908–1967), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holt-harold-edward-10530 published first in hardcopy 1988 

The Canberra Times, Holt to act on violence at meetings, 25 November, 1966

 

Gilmour/Fairfax Syndication

... whether we are classed by the geographer as part of Asia or not, we increasingly think of ourselves as involved in its problems and concerned with its potentialities

Harold Holt, Speech at the Far East America Council, Waldorf Hotel, 9 June 1967

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