It was a quintessential Australian death. On 17 December 1967, Australia’s 17th prime minister, Harold Edward Holt, waded into the churning surf at Victoria’s Cheviot Beach, defying a swift current and a strong under-tow that left others in his party refusing to enter. Within minutes Holt was swept up and out, “like a leaf … so quick, so final”, and never seen again.
For the thousands lining the Mornington Peninsula beaches in the early summer heat that Sunday afternoon, the day would be remembered for its surreal mix of the everyday and the remarkable. Images of heat, sand and sea, played out to a backdrop of low-flying helicopters, making their way toward the treacherous point where the bay met the ocean, to search for the prime minister.
It was an ordinary death, a shockingly banal one that still befalls dozens every summer. That it happened to a prime minister, swimming alone in dangerous conditions without bodyguards, made it extraordinary. Photos of Holt in snorkel gear, surrounded by his bikini-clad daughters-in-law, only propelled the sense of intrigue and the view of him as a carefree, careless playboy. A view cemented by the image of a grief-stricken “attractive brunette” on Cheviot Beach as the search continued. The failure to find his body fuelled conspiracy theories for decades – his judgment was dulled by opiates he was taking for a shoulder injury; he was a Chinese spy and had been taken by a Chinese submarine; he was depressed, driven to the point of suicide by Liberal Party factional battles; his personal life was in turmoil and equally driving him to insouciance and danger.
The reality was rather more mundane and far less thrilling. Certainly, Harold Holt was charming, an attractive, youthful-looking 59-year-old, who had replaced Sir Robert Menzies as leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister barely two years earlier. He had been on the beach with his “good friend and neighbour” Marjorie Gillespie, his wife Zara having remained in Canberra that weekend, and it was Gillespie watching on the beach as Holt’s silver hair disappeared without even a wave or sign of distress. According to Zara Holt, this was nothing unusual – “he was having affairs everywhere” – and it was also why there was no bodyguard with Holt at the time: “He made a big thing of never having a guard anywhere near him. I know why.”
The demise of Holt had quickly overtaken his political life, and his lengthy parliamentary service and truncated term in office were too easily forgotten. It was not helped by the unfortunate naming of a council swimming pool after him, which became a constant reminder of the manner of his death. Holt was a career politician and had been in parliament for more than three decades before becoming prime minister. At 26, he was the youngest member of the parliament he entered in 1935, in a by-election for the United Australia Party. Despite their vastly different personalities, Holt was Menzies’ protégé from the outset and in 1956 was elected deputy leader of the Liberal Party, founded and comprehensively dominated by Menzies.
It would be another decade before Holt finally took the Liberal Party leadership, an ascension that by then appeared to be the party’s belated attempt at modernisation, a nod to the social and political changes brewing in the 1960s just as that dynamic decade was nearing its end. With such a lengthy apprenticeship and such a revered predecessor, Holt had been handed a troubled political chalice. Menzies’s success had been in no small measure due to his personal authority. He had melded the disparate groupings of free traders, liberal progressives and right-wing ideologues into the unlikely yet united modern Liberal Party, and his word had become a willing substitute for party consensus. It made leadership and government look implausibly easy.
The inevitable divisions in the Liberal Party, successfully papered over by Menzies’s personal authority for 17 years, were unleashed with his retirement and Holt faced a political struggle which, although intense, was hardly unusual for any political leader. They were scarcely likely to drive a man, who had waited years to reach the political pinnacle, to suicide out of fear of the next party meeting or Billy McMahon’s latest carefully placed injudicious leak.
Holt had been returned in a big victory in the 1966 election just months after coming to office, and he was the only Liberal member after that election who was able to match the Labor Party’s new leader, Gough Whitlam. Like Whitlam and most unlike the lugubrious Menzies, Holt was telegenic, a good media performer with a strong television presence. He was more than just literally a fresh face after years of the now septuagenarian Menzies; as prime minister Holt also represented an opportunity to bring the conservative government into the late 20th century with some long-overdue policy development.
Unfortunately, the early signs were hardly auspicious. Holt had no interest in changing Menzies’s deep anti-communism and pro-US stance and made his mark early by dramatically increasing Australian troops in Vietnam and urging further bombing, in the face of growing opposition to that unpopular and disastrous war. It was just one manifestation of his deference to American foreign policy interests, most clearly on display on the lawns of the White House in 1966, when he told US President Lyndon B. Johnson that Australia was “all the way with LBJ”.
It was supine, sycophantic and a lost opportunity for Australia to develop an independent national stance in foreign affairs on the world stage. Yet even in this field of traditional conservativism to one or the other of Australia’s “great friends”, the UK and the US, Holt could not be so simply described. He sought to improve relations with Asia and made Australia better known in the region it had long neglected. In one of his most significant decisions, he set in train an end to appeals to the Privy Council from the High Court, a highly significant move that would, under his successor John Gorton, end this demeaning legacy of colonialism. Appeals from all Australian State supreme courts were not severed until 1986, an indication of Holt’s prescience in this respect.
On domestic issues, Holt evidenced a more consistently progressive shift and in this he left an important legacy that ought to be acknowledged. He was particularly supportive of the arts and established the Australian Council for the Arts for public funding of the arts, covering all theatre arts – drama, opera and ballet – and film and television. It began the process that would culminate in the Whitlam government’s remarkable largesse towards the arts by bringing funding under two umbrellas and replacing the myriad bodies then responsible for different sectors with little co-ordination or national direction.
Nowhere was Holt’s legacy more significant than in the 1967 referendum, which gave the Commonwealth power to legislate with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to include them in the census. It was here that the difference between Holt and Menzies was at its most apparent for it was no coincidence that the referendum, which was long overdue and had been in train for years, was not put until after Menzies had retired. The 1967 referendum, in which an unprecedented 91% of people voted yes, had been proposed over several decades – indeed this same provision for the Commonwealth to have the power to legislate in relation to Indigenous Australians had also been part of the Curtin government’s unsuccessful 1944 referendum on post-war reconstruction and democratic rights. Despite the long gestation of the 1967 referendum, it was Holt who put it to the Australian people and achieved such an overwhelming result. It is without doubt his most significant legacy.
Harold Holt’s memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne was Australia’s largest gathering of international leaders – attended by 19 of them. It was a remarkable tribute to a man whose time as prime minister had barely begun.
Professor Jenny Hocking is the award-winning biographer and author of Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History, Gough Whitlam: His Time. Her latest book is The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975 – The Palace Connection. National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University.
First published in The Guardian, 17 December 2017.