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Sir Henry Edward Bolte (1908–1990)

by David Dunstan

This article was published:

Henry Bolte, by Bruce Howard, 1970s

Henry Bolte, by Bruce Howard, 1970s

National Library of Australia, 25211940

Sir Henry Edward Bolte (1908-1990), farmer and premier, was born on 20 May 1908 at Ballarat East, elder son of Victorian-born parents James Henry (Harry) Bolte, miner, and his wife Anna Jane, née Martin. Harry was also a moderately successful handyman, shepherd and occasional prospector. His German parents had fled to England in 1847 and then migrated to Victoria in 1852. Anna’s maternal grandparents were also of German origin. In 1892 her mother had married a second time, to William Warren. When Henry was born his parents moved to Skipton. The focal points of his childhood were the Ripon Hotel, owned by his father until 1921; the larger Skipton Hotel, owned by the Warrens until 1921, when they sold it to the Boltes; and the Skipton State School, where F. A. Moore, an Anglican churchman and Empire loyalist, was headmaster. Henry was conscious of the disadvantage of his German background during World War I; he later said that it had toughened him.

Harry Bolte was stern and prudent, a `standover man’ who in Henry’s recollection `ruled with a strap’. Although a publican, Harry was not `a social drinker’ and had little time for those who were. Henry weathered his father’s bouts of anger, accepted his values and grew closer to him later in life. Anna was more tolerant, as were the Warrens, with whom Henry often stayed. Bill Warren’s anti-socialist views influenced the boy. Henry’s was `an average, normal, happy family life consistent with [that of] country people’. Nicknamed `Pudden’ or `Pud’ for his stocky build, he was a gregarious youth who swam with friends in the `Big Hole’ of the Mount Emu Creek, and went shooting, fishing and camping on weekends.

At school Bolte played sport (captain of football and cricket), topped seventh grade in 1920 and next year attended Moore’s extra classes for students seeking scholarships. In 1922, with the assistance of a junior technical scholarship, he became a boarder at Ballarat Church of England Grammar School. Now nicknamed `Pot’, he was better off than most of his peers and had money to lend. The school emphasised careers in the public service, the church and teaching. Its leading figures were the headmaster E. V. Butler and the `character building’ ex-army chaplain Alex Macpherson. A contemporary remarked that `any polish Henry may have acquired he owed to Macpherson’.

Two of Bolte’s schoolfellows, Tom Hollway and E. H. Montgomery, were to enter politics. When Bolte left school in 1924, he considered becoming a politician, clergyman, auctioneer or bank clerk. For the next ten years, however, he remained in the family circle and enjoyed small-town life. Harry Bolte sold the Skipton Hotel, purchased three small local sheep properties, and in 1925 started a haberdashery store at Skipton for his wife and elder son. It had failed by 1929. In the Depression Henry worked in his father’s and other farmers’ shearing sheds, joining the Australian Workers’ Union.

Bolte acted in amateur theatricals and involved himself in the affairs of the Church of England. He played cricket and football for Skipton, and was `a keen two-bob punter’, secretary of the Skipton Racing Club and one of the first instructors appointed outside Melbourne in the Herald newspaper’s Learn-to-Swim campaign. Sport honed his competitive instinct and brought him into contact with wealthy families who had powerful conservative political associations. Among his cricketing team-mates in the Western Plains side were (Sir) Rutherford Guthrie, Geoffrey Street and (Sir) Chester Manifold. Bolte was later to extol the values of team sports as readily translatable to political life. He met visiting politicians, including in 1931 (Sir) Robert Menzies.

With money his grandmother Warren gave him, in 1934 Bolte bought Kialla, a farm at Bamganie, near Meredith. The money also enabled him to marry his long-time sweetheart and Skipton neighbour, Edith Lilian `Jill’ Elder, on 24 November that year at Scots Church, Ballarat; the couple were to be childless. The run-down property to which they moved had 900 acres (364 ha) and 600 sheep, and, in Henry’s estimation, 60,000 rabbits. He supplemented his income by trapping, poisoning and ferreting the rabbits. To support their community, the Boltes shopped locally even though Meredith was close to both Ballarat and Geelong.

On 20 August 1940 Bolte enlisted in the Militia as a gunner. He served with the 2nd and 3rd Field Training regiments, Puckapunyal, as an artillery instructor and a pay clerk. Promoted to acting sergeant in March 1942, he reverted to gunner in November and was discharged on 19 January 1943. He later lamented that he had been classified as medically unfit for overseas service. Compared with many of his future political peers, he had an undistinguished war record, involving numerous periods of leave without pay, and most weekends, home at Kialla.

In 1945 Bolte attended the Liberal Party’s first State council as president of the minuscule Meredith branch. A paucity of candidates encouraged him to make an impromptu offer to stand for the Legislative Assembly seat of Hampden in the general election to be held in November. Manifold vouched for him as a popular and successful farmer whose wife, like her husband, was a good mixer, but the inexperienced Bolte ran a mediocre campaign and lost by nearly six hundred votes. Determined to secure a second opportunity, he took lessons in public speaking and, with friends canvassing for him, won preselection in 1947. At the State general election on 8 November the Federal Labor government’s bank nationalisation proposal was a major issue. Bolte defeated the sitting Labor candidate, Raymond Hyett, by almost two thousand votes. He was to hold Hampden until retirement, although he won it by a margin of only seventy-two in 1952.

The parliament Bolte entered was one of `unpredictably changing alignments within and between each of the three parties’. At first a Liberal and Country coalition governed under Hollway’s leadership, but the alliance collapsed after only twelve months. On 3 December 1948 Hollway formed a minority Liberal administration in which his former schoolmate Bolte, a country member who spoke on rural issues, was given the portfolios of water supply, mines and (from December 1949) conservation. The Victorian Liberals renamed their organisation the Liberal and Country Party in 1949. Bolte rationalised the administration of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission and provided for new dams. In May 1949 he introduced legislation establishing the Soil Conservation Authority. The Hollway government fell in June 1950. Bolte’s brief ministerial experience was to put him ahead of future rivals for the leadership of the LCP.

Hollway obtained support from the party’s executive for the `2 for 1’ scheme, whereby every Federal electorate would be divided into two State electorates, ending an imbalance in the electoral distribution that grossly favoured country voters. But many members of the LCP, Bolte among them, had reservations, believing Labor would benefit. John McConnell, (Sir) Arthur Warner, and (Sir) John Anderson, an influential member of the party executive, moved against Hollway. They cultivated Bolte and introduced him to businessmen.

In December 1951 the parliamentary party dumped Hollway and his deputy Trevor Oldham and elected L. G. Norman as leader and Bolte as his deputy. (Sir) Arthur Rylah had polled successfully for the deputy-leadership but party convention stipulated that either the leader or deputy should come from a non-metropolitan area. Norman and Bolte then sought to reverse the party’s commitment to the 2 for 1 scheme. Hollway and some followers were expelled from the LCP. In the general election held on 6 December 1952, Hollway stood against Norman for the seat of Glen Iris and defeated him.

Labor won the election and implemented the 2 for 1 plan. The LCP chose Oldham as leader and confirmed Bolte as deputy but in May 1953 Oldham was killed in an air crash. In the subsequent ballot for the leadership Warner’s support proved crucial in gaining victory for Bolte and heading off Rylah, who became deputy. Bolte was now leader of the Opposition. His rise had followed the party’s loss of three leaders in unusual circumstances in only eighteen months, and many believed that he was only a stopgap leader. But in 1955 the Australian Labor Party split and right-wing former members, many of them Catholics, established the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), later renamed the Democratic Labor Party. This party’s preferences were to flow overwhelmingly to the LCP and were to be a decisive factor in its future electoral success.

Using his `cleanskin’ image, the personable Bolte manoeuvred shrewdly behind the scenes, insisting that he, and not one of Labor’s dissidents, move a no confidence motion against the government. It was carried on 20 April 1955 and a general election followed on 28 May. Winning a total of thirty-four seats in the Legislative Assembly, the LCP was able to govern narrowly in its own right. The preferences of ALP(A-C) candidates had secured the LCP nine of its Lower House seats, two of them being won by fewer than twenty votes.

Bolte promised a government of action. Besides being premier, he was treasurer and (to 1961) minister of conservation. In 1956 his government cleared the emergency housing settlement, Camp Pell, in Royal Park, raised rents for public housing and reorganised the Housing Commission. The abolition that year of quarterly cost-of-living adjustments to the wages of Victorian workers gave Bolte a personal victory over James Stout and earned him the enmity of the union movement. Accepting (Sir) Maurice Nathan’s suggestion, Bolte formed the Victoria Promotion Committee, joined it himself, undertook the first of nine overseas missions promoting the State, and persuaded international companies to expand or establish in Victoria. He courted (Sir) John Williams, managing director of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, in the hope of gaining that media group’s support for his policies.

In Rylah, Bolte was fortunate to have a progressive, loyal and hard-working deputy. A disciplined cabinet, the LCP’s majority in the Lower House and a steadily improving economy gave impetus to the government’s program. In 1956 the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was made responsible for building freeways. Two years later the government established the National Parks Authority and ratified the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme agreements. Notwithstanding Bolte’s strong advocacy of private enterprise, public-sector authorities expanded under his premiership.

The parliamentary contest was made easier for Bolte with the death (1957) of the leader of the ALP, John Cain, whose forceful debating style he copied. At the general election on 31 May 1958, the LCP claimed that it had brought stable government to Victoria. The campaign was the first covered by television, which suited Bolte’s direct and personal approach. He won an increased majority that included ten rural seats, preferential support from the DLP again proving vital. Seeking control of the Upper House, he tried to persuade the Country Party’s parliamentary secretary, Dudley Walters, to accept the presidency, prompting the leader of that party, Sir Herbert Hyland, to describe the premier as `a mongrel’. Bolte rode out attacks in 1958-60 by the leader of the Opposition, Clive Stoneham, on Warner’s conflicts of interest between his commercial enterprises and ministerial responsibilities.

Bolte was a competent if necessarily parsimonious treasurer. Lucky to be in government at a time of prosperity, he nevertheless struggled to meet increasing demands for services due to the influx of capital and an expanding population, and ran deficits in his first four budgets. He asked the Commonwealth to return to the States the power, taken from them in 1942, to raise income taxes, and when his request was refused attempted to achieve his objective in the High Court of Australia. In 1959 the Commonwealth gave ground and introduced a new formula for financial support to the States but Bolte believed Victoria to be disadvantaged by the terms of the six-year arrangement. He also disliked tied grants from the Commonwealth, believing that they denied his government sovereignty.

The general election on 15 July 1961 was held in difficult circumstances due to the Federal treasurer Harold Holt’s `credit squeeze’ but Bolte won an extra Lower House seat. Once more, DLP preferences in marginal seats were of critical importance. Bolte’s policy was to keep `the DLP alive’. He helped find jobs for some of its members who had lost their seats, asked his business contacts to donate to DLP election campaigns, and maintained cordial relations with the Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix. Although the Menzies government came close to defeat in the Federal general election in December, the Liberal Party lost comparatively few votes in Victoria. Party pundits and the press attributed Menzies’ survival to the popularity of the Victorian premier, who now became a national figure.

In 1962 the standard-gauge railway from Melbourne to Albury was completed. The government legislated for Victoria’s second and third universities, Monash (opened 1961) and La Trobe (opened 1967). Senior technical colleges were upgraded by the founding in 1965 of the Victoria Institute of Colleges. The completion of the La Trobe Library (1965) and the first stage of the Victorian Arts Centre (1968) had their origins in Bolte’s 1955 campaign speech. Support was provided to provincial museums and galleries, and to William Ricketts, whose sculptures interested Jill Bolte.

Although the LCP’s vote increased overall in the general election of June 1964, Bolte’s victory came with the loss of one seat. Facing severe financial constraints, he proposed increased rail fares and freight charges and, in effect, a State income tax. But the government’s briefly held Upper House majority disappeared following a by-election in October. When the CP threatened to combine with Labor to block supply, Bolte dropped his tax plan and the proposed increases in charges, and agreed to remove the words `and Country’ from the LCP’s title. He also promised a redistribution (1965), which did away with the 2 for 1 principle and restored the favourable position of rural districts.

Bolte’s deficits continued (1964, 1966 and 1968-70) and poor treatment by the Commonwealth became a standard complaint in his annual budget speech. With Menzies’ support, he negotiated a deal for the supply of natural gas from the offshore Gippsland Basin, claiming that he and Menzies had gained the `fuel bargain of the century’. Local supplies of oil and gas stimulated Victorian petroleum and petrochemical industries. In 1966 Bolte was appointed KCMG. An avowed monarchist, he went to London for the investiture at Buckingham Palace on 24 May and afterwards held court himself at the Hyde Park Hotel.

The Racing (Totalizators Extension) Act 1960 had legalised off-course betting. Bolte also favoured the liberalisation of trading hours for shops and hotels.(Sir) Philip Phillips’s report on the licensing laws, as expected, recommended ending the requirement that hotels close at 6 p.m. Bolte manoeuvred to change the Liberal Party’s policy that the matter should be decided by referendum, and from 1 February 1966 hotels were permitted to remain open until 10 p.m. In 1965 a limit of .05 per cent blood-alcohol content had been set for motorists. From 1970 they and their passengers were compelled to wear seat-belts.

On other issues Bolte was a conservative brake. He opposed relaxing laws on abortion, censorship and sexual behaviour, favoured stiffer penalties for violent crimes, and advocated the death penalty. Nevertheless, his government had commuted fifteen sentences of death before refusing in 1962 to do so in the case of Robert Tait, a psychopathic and brutal killer. To allow consideration of submissions that Tait was insane, the High Court intervened and effectively thwarted Bolte. Despite this rebuff, his leadership was strengthened and his views were unchanged.

On 12 December 1966 cabinet decided not to commute the sentence of death imposed on Ronald Ryan for killing a prison warder. Bolte’s view was that the public’s guardians had to be safeguarded and that there were no mitigating circumstances. Public and media opposition made the case one of national and international interest and Bolte complained about personal attacks on him. Tension increased as successive appeals failed. Ryan was hanged at 8 a.m. on 3 February 1967. A journalist asked Bolte what he was doing at the time. He retorted: `One of the three Ss, I suppose’. When asked what he meant, he replied: `A shit, a shave or a shower’.

The Liberal Party won the general election in April 1967 but not control of the Upper House. Although Bolte’s leadership was under no challenge, he now had back-bench critics in the party room. Labor’s new leader, Clyde Holding, promised a more combative approach. Drought and metropolitan water restrictions reminded people of Bolte’s boast in 1964 that not `one drop’ of water would be taken from north of the Great Dividing Range to augment Melbourne’s supply. Inner city residents protested at the Housing Commission’s forced evacuations and high-rise redevelopments, and the National Trust bemoaned the destruction of the city’s heritage. Teachers, university students, do-gooders, unionists, anti-Vietnam War protesters and the Age newspaper opposed the government; all were the butt of Bolte’s jibes at his morning press conferences. Fewer decisions were announced in parliament and the party room. The premier’s homespun quips crystallised both his and his government’s stance on many issues: `More important than pollution of the air, soil and water is pollution of the mind’. `Quality of life? It’s peace of mind based on a home and garden’.

Bolte tried to prevent (Sir) John Gorton’s election as federal Liberal leader in January 1968, mainly because of the latter’s centralist views. Gorton soon roused Bolte’s ire when he rejected Victoria’s new `stamps duty’ as an income tax. Bolte was outraged at the premiers’ conference in February 1970 when a decision was taken in his absence and Gorton reputedly vetoed an extra $35 million the Treasury had allocated to the States. After Gorton relinquished the leadership in March 1971, Bolte claimed that he had persuaded three Victorian Liberals to vote against Gorton. (Sir) William McMahon was elected and in June handed the States additional funds and allowed them to levy payroll tax, the proceeds from which enabled Bolte to balance his budget.

Staged election eve photographs of Bolte posing with local workmen, shearing, drinking in the local hotel, swimming in his dam at a time of drought, or kissing his aged mother, revealed no sense of self-parody. He could be ingenuous to a degree some found refreshing, others shocking. In 1968 he had said of militant schoolteachers: `They can strike till they’re black in the face. It won’t make any difference’. The Liberals lost the seat of Dandenong at a by-election in December 1969 with a 10 per cent swing and suddenly Bolte looked vulnerable. A factor in the defeat was the scheme of the minister for lands, Sir William McDonald, to settle the Little Desert. Critics had challenged the viability of farming this marginal land. The government’s back-down in December was a notable victory for environmentalists.

Opening his campaign for the 1970 general election, Bolte recited his government’s achievements: prosperity for all, increased home ownership, industrial development, jobs and improvements in education. He now promised more national parks, environmental protection and a start on the Melbourne underground railway. The leader of the CP, George Moss, had derided Bolte’s `city-based financial henchmen’ and indicated that his party’s second preferences would go to the ALP at the election. But Labor’s chances were damaged when the State executive overruled Holding’s support for the federal policy on state aid to non-government schools. At the election on 30 May the Liberals lost only two seats and gained control of the Upper House for the first time in six years.

Bolte planned to retire, like Menzies, with his party ascendant and a chosen successor in place. He made his last, and typically dramatic, political gesture in April 1972, when his government intervened legislatively to prevent for the time being a takeover of Ansett Transport Industries Ltd by Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd. Support for his friend Sir Reginald Ansett was an evident motive but Bolte was also acting to protect a Melbourne-based company from a predatory Sydney raider. Criticism at this stage was irrelevant. On 10 July Bolte told cabinet of his intention to resign and he did so officially on 23 August. He was appointed GCMG that year but, despite his intense lobbying, failed in a campaign to be elevated to the peerage. His wife was appointed DBE in 1973; `two working, one on the payroll’, was Sir Henry’s description of their partnership.

In retirement Bolte joined the boards of Australian companies and became a committeeman of the Victoria Racing Club and a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The policies of the Whitlam government aroused his hostility and he flirted with an extreme right-wing organisation, People Against Communism. After 1982 Liberals in the Opposition would trek to Bamganie, whisky bottle in hand, seeking consolation and advice. (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the premier of Queensland, adopted his political style and befriended him, but was unable to gain Bolte’s endorsement of his prime-ministerial ambitions.

On 24 March 1984 the car Bolte was driving collided with another vehicle on a country road near his property and he suffered serious injuries. While he was in intensive care in hospital, the blood sample taken from him after the crash was switched by an unknown person who possibly thought it contained excessive alcohol, requiring Bolte’s prosecution. No charges were laid. The sudden death of Dame Edith in 1986 affected him deeply. A compulsive talker to the last, he reminisced to journalists and to Mel Pratt for the National Library of Australia. Bolte died on 4 January 1990 at home and was cremated. A state memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. His collection of memorabilia was left to Sovereign Hill, Ballarat.

According to Lindsay Thompson, Bolte had `a warm natural manner and large expressive eyes which gave one an almost disconcertingly direct gaze’. He never allowed himself to be `drowned in detail’, rarely took files home and instead concentrated on `issues that really mattered … overall economic development, the attracting of big investors, early budgetary planning and major strategy for a forthcoming election’. Ministers were left to run their departments provided they kept within budgetary limits. He was `a firm chairman [of cabinet] who insisted on members being concise and relevant’; once made, a cabinet decision was solid.

Although politics were Bolte’s life, his pleasures and tastes were those of an ordinary Australian male of his time. He smoked, drank, followed sport, owned racehorses and bet on the races. Unlike his counterpart in New South Wales, Sir Robert Askin, whom he distrusted, he was never the subject of rumours of personal corruption. He admired Menzies but had little in common with him, save enjoyment of political success. A `man’s man’, he nevertheless enjoyed time with his wife and went back to his farm at weekends.

Peter Blazey accurately represented Bolte as an accidental political leader given an easy run, a rural ingénue who justified the faith of hard-headed party organisers by maturing into a political ultra-realist and skilled tactician, whose drive, calculated appeals to the public, and refusal to be swayed by humanitarian motives, were his greatest strengths. Yet, despite his accomplishments, he `lacked a developed philosophy of social justice and had little awareness of the problems of the family man’. Moreover, he was combative, defensive and insecure when he felt his position was under challenge. The public showdown, with manufactured overtones of a crisis, was his method of asserting authority. But he could also be pliant and accommodating when it suited him. His dismissal and ridicule of opposition, while effective and often entertaining, did little to elevate public debate or understanding.

To affectionate supporters Bolte well understood the concerns and desires of the average Australian. He was an uncut diamond, a plain talker and a good and canny leader, able to deliver pithy phrases and chart the right course by means that were often unconventional. With his fierce chauvinism in Commonwealth-State financial matters, close personal relations with local business elites, tours overseas to drum up investment, conservative stance on moral issues and crime, sensitivity to rural and non-metropolitan voters, and devotion to sport, Bolte refined the political model of an Australian State premier. His achievement was a Victorian record of seventeen years in power, although he never won as much as 40 per cent of the primary vote.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (1965)
  • M. Harris and G. Dutton (eds), Sir Henry, Bjelke, Don Baby and Friends (1971)
  • P. Blazey, Bolte: A Political Biography (1972 and 1989 edns)
  • B. Muir, Bolte from Bamganie (1973)
  • J. M. Powell, Watering the Garden State (1989)
  • L. Thompson, I Remember (1989)
  • T. Prior, Bolte by Bolte (1990)
  • R. Wright, A People’s Counsel (1992)
  • M. Richards, The Hanged Man (2002)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 6 Mar 1990, p 17
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, Victoria), 6 Mar 1990, p 1
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 May 1967, p 5, 5 Jan 1990, pp 2 and 6, 12 Oct 1991, p 6, 10 Aug 2003, p 1
  • Bulletin, 7 Nov 1978, p 41
  • Times on Sunday, 17 May 1987, p 16
  • M. Pratt, taped interview with Henry Bolte (1976, National Library of Australia).

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Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Bolte, Sir Henry Edward (1908–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Bolte, by Bruce Howard, 1970s

Henry Bolte, by Bruce Howard, 1970s

National Library of Australia, 25211940

Life Summary [details]


20 May, 1908
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


4 January, 1990 (aged 81)
Bamganie, Victoria, Australia

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