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

26 January 1966 — 19 December 1967 1 year, 327 days

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


5 August 1908
Sydney, New South Wales


17 December 1967
Cheviot Beach, Victoria


Zara Holt



Photo: Staff/Fairfax

26 January 1966 — 19 December 1967 1 year, 327 days


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. 

Harold Holt standing in the middle of a crowd of demonstrators.

Photo: NAA: M4294, 7

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. 


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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. 

Harold Holt boarding a plane.

Photo: Gilmour/Fairfax Syndication

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