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Holt, Edgar George (1904–1988)

by Bridget Griffen-Foley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Edgar George Holt (1904-1988), poet, journalist and public relations officer, was born on 27 December 1904 at Burnley, Lancashire, son of George Andrew Holt, commercial traveller, and his wife Mary Ann, née Smith. When Edgar was 9 the family migrated to Australia, eventually settling in Queensland; he attended Brisbane State High School. He served a cadetship at the Daily Mail and in 1924 transferred to the Brisbane Telegraph. Holt, an `eccentric and casual’ student in the diploma of journalism course at the University of Queensland in 1926, edited and contributed poetry and cultural commentaries to the student newspaper Galmahra. In 1929 he published a volume of poetry, The Merlin Papers, with his friend Colin Bingham. On 11 October 1930 he married with Presbyterian forms Dorothy Lester Vaughan at her home at New Farm, Brisbane.

Advised by the expatriate composer Arthur Benjamin to `go south’ as Brisbane was only `all right from the neck down’, Holt had joined the venerable Melbourne Argus in 1929. He caused a sensation when he became a leader-writer at the age of 26; he editorialised against fascism. He contributed verse to the short-lived modernist magazine Stream (1931) and in 1932 published Lilacs Out of the Dead Land, which was influenced by T. S. Eliot and the later Romantic poets.

A special and leader-writer on the Melbourne Herald from 1935, Holt contributed book reviews and articles about Australian literature and culture. Two years later, his play Anzac Reunion was published. In 1939 he was elected federal president of the Australian Journalists’ Association (and was awarded its gold honour badge), but resigned later that year when he moved to Sydney to join the dynamic Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. He was a political columnist and chief leader-writer, but he gained little satisfaction pontificating `on affairs great and small’ at the behest of proprietors and editors. In October 1944 he took an active role in the production of a union newspaper during a Sydney newspaper strike, relishing the opportunity `to be off the chain’. After falling out with Brian Penton, editor of the Daily Telegraph, he joined Smith’s Weekly in 1945. A passionate cook, he wrote about food using the pseudonym `Toby Belch’. He compiled the waspish `Political Form Guide’, and edited the paper from 1947 to 1950, when it ceased publication.

An admirer of John Curtin and Ben Chifley, until the bank nationalisation scheme, Holt was appointed federal public relations officer of the Liberal Party of Australia in November 1950. He had ambitious plans: a closer liaison between the federal secretariat, the State divisions and the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of the party, and measurement of public opinion on major issues. Although he never received the resources he required, he wrote summaries of parliamentary and policy initiatives, pamphlets such as The First Ten Years (1959), and other publicity material for Federal and State elections, including Harold Holt’s policy speech. In 1959 he visited Britain and the United States of America to investigate the use of television in political campaigning. He also appeared on the panel of the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s `Any Questions?’ and published poetry in Southerly and Meanjin.

Public relations, he commented, `is largely salesmanship, but one must know precisely what is to be sold’. For Holt, being a member of the Liberal Party entailed rejecting totalitarianism—the `crude forms of power-organisation with which this century is familiar’—and advancing the dignity and freedom of the individual. As early as 1943 he had identified (Sir) Robert Menzies as having the most lucid and disciplined intellect in parliament, and being the best debater, but lacking some political gifts. With the federal secretariat, Holt made the prime minister and his family the focus of party publicity, fostering the image of the fatherly `Bob Menzies’ and then the statesmanlike `Sir Robert Menzies’. He wrote Politics Is People: The Men of the Menzies Era (1969) at a time when the party leadership was fracturing.

Short and rotund, Holt had an unruly mop of grey hair, a ruddy complexion and a boisterous laugh. He joined his confrères Kenneth Slessor and Cyril Pearl in establishing the Condiments Club, which met at restaurants in Sydney. Becoming increasingly vocal in his condemnation of the media, Holt blamed it for creating `instant politics’ and for manufacturing political crises. In September 1972 the party replaced him as senior public relations officer and gave him the title of senior political adviser to the secretariat. Following the election defeat in December, some officials grumbled about the generation of `forty-niners’. Critical of the parliamentary wing’s increasing dominance over the federal secretariat and as an admirer of E. G. Whitlam, Holt was eased out of the organisation in 1974. Roman history occupied the last years of the self-described `nonconformist’ and `civilised amateur’. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 11 October 1988 at Potts Point and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly? (1966)
  • C. Turnbull (ed), Hammond Innes Introduces Australia (1971)
  • I. Hancock, National and Permanent? (2000)
  • B. Griffen-Foley, `A “Civilised Amateur”‘, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 49, no 1, 2003, p 31
  • Australian Liberal, Sept 1960, `supplement’, p 3, Aug 1971, p 7, Nov 1971, p 7
  • Nation, 7 Oct 1961, p 7
  • M. Pratt, interview with E. G. Holt (transcript, 1978, National Library of Australia)
  • C. Bingham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Liberal Party of Australia, federal secretariat papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bridget Griffen-Foley, 'Holt, Edgar George (1904–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holt-edgar-george-12649/text22793, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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