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Harold Edward Holt (1908–1967)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published:

Harold Edward Holt (1908-1967), prime minister, was born on 5 August 1908 at Stanmore, Sydney, elder son of Thomas James Holt, schoolteacher, and his wife Olive May, née Williams, both Australian born. Harold began his education at Randwick Public School and boarded briefly at Abbotsholme, Killara, where he met (Sir) William McMahon, a future colleague and prime minister. Tom Holt left teaching and tried the hotel trade in Adelaide before becoming a travelling theatrical manager. Harold's unsettled years ended when, aged 11, he was sent with his brother Cliff to board at Wesley Preparatory School, Melbourne.

Harold completed his matriculation at Wesley College, excelling more as a sportsman and in theatricals than as a student, although the scholarship he took to Queen's College, University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1930), placed half the weighting on academic attainment and the other half on force of character and athleticism. The undergraduate continued his sporting career, captaining the college in cricket and representing it in football and tennis. He won a college medal for oratory (1930) and was elected president of the sports and social club (1931); he was president of the University Law Students' Society and a member of the university's debating team. Admitted to the Bar on 10 November 1932, he read with (Sir) Thomas Clyne and discovered that there was no future for young barristers during the Depression. In 1933 Holt began a sole practice as a solicitor.

His father's career, meanwhile, was flourishing. Widowed about 1925, Tom joined the entrepreneur Frank Thring in 1930 to make feature films, then managed radio 3XY in Melbourne when Thring bought the operating rights in 1935. Cliff took a job as publicity director for Hoyts Theatres Ltd. With an aunt playing comedy in Britain, Harold thus had connexions and interests in film and stage, and in 1935 was appointed secretary of the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association. A modest income and a widening circle of companions gave the young man the security and sense of belonging his bon vivant father could not provide.

Harold found political as well as theatrical friends, including (Dame) Mabel Brookes and (Sir) Robert Menzies. Holt joined the Young Nationalists and in the 1934 Federal elections stood for the United Australia Party against James Scullin in the Labor stronghold of Yarra. After contesting another Labor seat in the State elections, he won, at 27 years of age in 1935, a by-election for the secure U.A.P. seat of Fawkner in the House of Representatives. Holt was to retain Fawkner until 1949 when, following a redistribution and the enlargement of the House, he moved to the new seat of Higgins which he was to hold with absolute majorities until his death.

The new member for Fawkner was a dashing figure: of middle height, fit and handsome, with thick black hair swept back, well-tailored clothes, a ready smile and a natural charm. Shortly after his first election, Holt entered an arrangement with Jack Graham, another young Melbourne solicitor and an Old Geelong Grammarian, to whom he paid a retainer to look after his work. They opened an office at 178 Collins Street, employed a typist and took on industrial work, gaining some business through Holt's cinema and theatre connexions, and from the name he was making in politics. The partnership expanded after World War II into Holt, Graham & Newman, and lasted until 1963 by which time Holt, understandably, was making little contribution.

Following the 1937 elections Holt used parliament as a forum to advocate national physical fitness. On 26 April 1939 he joined the first Menzies government as minister without portfolio, assisting the minister for supply and (from 23 February 1940) the minister for trade and customs. In addition, Holt was briefly acting-minister for air and civil aviation. At 30, he had become the youngest man to hold ministerial office in Federal parliament. His front-bench career was interrupted when Country Party members rejoined the ministry in March 1940. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 22 May and trained as a gunner, his previous military experience consisting of five years compulsory membership of the Wesley College cadets, three years in the Melbourne University Rifles and fourteen months in the artillery (Militia).

Menzies recalled Holt to Canberra as a result of the deaths of three senior ministers in an air accident on 13 August 1940 and he was discharged from the A.I.F. After the elections in September, he was given a full cabinet post and the new portfolio of labour and national service—in recognition of his tact and easy-going disposition—though his major contribution was to introduce child endowment, earning him the epithet, 'godfather of a million children'.

Holt agonized over but eventually supported the ousting of his mentor Menzies in August 1941. The fallen hero forgave this first and last act of disloyalty. Holt retained his portfolio in the short-lived ministry of (Sir) Arthur Fadden, and, when John Curtin took office in October, sat on the Opposition front-bench as spokesman on industrial relations. He attended an abortive unity meeting of non-Labor leaders in Melbourne in February 1943, but was not a prime mover in the discussions which followed the electoral annihilation of the U.A.P. in August and which led to the formation of the Liberal Party. He did, however, support the decision of the parliamentary party in February 1945 to adopt the name 'Liberal', and he was to be a principal and outspoken champion of the anti-socialist cause in the late 1940s.

Two important events affected Holt at the end of the war. His father died in October 1945 and, on 8 October 1946, ten days after the Liberal Party was heavily defeated at the polls, he married with Congregational forms Zara Kate Fell, née Dickins, in her parents' home at Toorak. The two had courted when he was a law student, but, tired of their quarrelling and his general tardiness, she went abroad, and married a British Army officer stationed in India. Holt later claimed that he had kept away because of his Depression-induced poverty, and was devastated by her decision. After Zara's marriage failed, they restored their relationship, by which time she had three sons, of whom the twins—aged 7 in 1946—were possibly conceived during an earlier reunion with Harold.

Eight frustrating years in Opposition ended with the Liberal victory in December 1949. With the support of Albert Monk, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Menzies reappointed Holt minister for labour and national service, and gave him the additional portfolio of immigration which he was to hold until October 1956. Acknowledging Arthur Calwell's role in developing the immigration programme, Holt added his human touch and flexibility to hardship cases and significantly extended the assisted-passage scheme to non-British migrants. Under pressure from his own party, and conforming to his own beliefs, he maintained a preference for British settlers, but their numbers, as a proportion of the intake, fell in the 1950s. He was also committed to the White Australia policy and, ignoring the evidence he encountered at Commonwealth ministerial meetings, expressed his confidence that it did not cause resentment, in part because of tactful administration.

Holt held the labour portfolio until December 1958. An instinctive conciliator, he established such a good relationship with Monk and moderate trade-union leaders that members of his party accused him of excessive fraternization and damned him as an appeaser. Holt's methods contributed to the trend in which, despite an increase in the number of industrial disputes in the 1950s, there was a substantial decline in the number of working days lost. He also introduced important legislation—most notably, to make secret ballots in union elections mandatory (1951), and to separate the conciliation and arbitration processes from the exercise of judicial functions (1956), thus establishing the modern form of the Federal arbitration system.

His middle years were perhaps his happiest, for the successful minister discovered a liking for overseas travel. He had first ventured abroad in 1948 when he attended a meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in London, contrived a visit to Paris and stayed up until dawn. In the 1950s he took part in four meetings of the C.P.A. and was chairman (1952-55) of its general council. He was a guest at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, sat at 'my master's elbow' at a Commonwealth prime ministers' conference in London in 1957 and that year presided over the fortieth session of the International Labour Conference at Geneva. Zara accompanied him on almost all of these trips, with their many stopovers, new political and social contacts, opportunities to swim, dine and party, and even to make the Savoy Hotel in London 'a second home'.

On his travels Holt kept diaries which he circulated among officials and 'chums'. In them, for the most part, he eschewed politics, preferring to recommend restaurants, hotels and countries, and to comment—generously and warmly—on the appearance and attributes of those he met. The diary of his 'Coronation Odyssey' described a C.P.A. luncheon for seven hundred parliamentarians at Westminster Hall where, after gulping 'a couple of quickies', he sat between the Queen and Lady Churchill, listened in admiration to Sir Winston and enjoyed 'an unforgettable experience', not least for finding the Queen 'very easy to talk to, completely natural, charming'. The diarist had an eye for the comic, telling friends back home about the complicated toilet arrangements inside Westminster Abbey to assist elderly peers and their grand wives during a long day.

Holt was an inquisitive and patriotic tourist. On his Geneva visit in 1957 he espied Charlie (Sir Charles) Chaplin at the airport and had a good 'look-see'. Moving on to London, the Holts saw Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and both were 'proud of the Australian author, proud of the all-Australian cast, and proud of the country which had produced the types in the play and the types who played them'.

The hard-working and hard-playing Harold astonished everyone with his stamina. Up late on overseas trips, he attended to his papers before dawn, undertook a load of official engagements, and proved to be an effective negotiator and ambassador. His firm chairmanship contributed to the success of the C.P.A.'s Nairobi conference in 1954 at which he found to his delight that he got on well with the Asian members. Equally, at the I.L.C. session in 1957 he deftly handled a post-Suez Egyptian objection to his presidency, and calmly restored order when a Soviet delegate tried to make a propaganda speech after members of the Hungarian delegation were denied recognition.

In 1956 Holt had succeeded Sir Eric Harrison as deputy-leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party, easily defeating R. G. (Baron) Casey, but just beating a New South Wales senator (Sir) William Spooner. Doubts about Holt's mental toughness, and State rivalry, explained the close result which, none the less, gave him the clear inside running to succeed Menzies. The party organization was especially pleased because the new deputy-leader was closer to it than Menzies, even though Holt's chairmanship of the party's revived joint standing committee on federal policy did not make the government more responsive to the organization in policy matters. Parliament also benefited because, as leader of the House, he adopted Harrison's practice of working closely with Calwell, his opposite number.

Holt became treasurer on 10 December 1958 following Fadden's retirement. Treasury generally approved of the appointment: Holt had the requisite seniority and skill in cabinet to win a brief, and he did not have a dangerously independent mind or a personal agenda. While he did not automatically accept everything placed in front of him, and would ask questions, he had little interest in economics and no conceptual grasp. His gift was in talking to people, and persuading them to accept a proposition. His good fortune was to be advised by very able officials.

One of his first legislative acts was to push through the delayed reforms of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, separating the reserve functions and creating three banks to deal with trading, savings and development activities, all controlled by the new Commonwealth Banking Corporation. As treasurer, he joined the board of governors of the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Finance Corporation, chaired the annual meetings of these organizations in Washington in 1960, and made several visits to the United States of America and Europe to deliver speeches and raise loans, a workload which tested even his endurance without noticeably reducing the social round.

Holt sanctioned Treasury's monumental decision in February 1960 to remove virtually all import restrictions. The failure, however, to maintain strict fiscal and monetary control, and the preference for gradual measures to halt a speculative boom, led in November to another important decision which nearly reversed Holt's steady evolution to the top. He and the Reserve Bank of Australia announced a package of measures amounting to a 'credit squeeze' which drove the economy into a recession and saw unemployment rise to 131,000 by January 1962. On Treasury's advice, Holt argued against early remedial action on the expectation of a quick recovery and on the assumption that inflation was the real enemy. Complaining that the government had acted too late in disciplining the economy and too drastically when it did so, business turned on Holt, the treasury secretary Sir Roland Wilson and finally on Menzies himself.

As a result, the government just scraped back in the December 1961 elections and Holt's vote in Higgins fell by 6.5 per cent. Many Liberals and Liberal-supporting businessmen demanded his removal from the Treasury. Menzies insisted that the credit squeeze was a government decision, and so Holt survived. The prime minister, with the treasurer at his shoulder, sought to retrieve the situation by consulting with business leaders in February 1962 and implementing policies which, very slowly, helped the economy to recover. Holt carried some scars, and he looked nervously at the reaction to his subsequent budgets. In August 1963 he proudly told Sir Howard Beale that he had never received so many favourable private comments from businessmen, while noting that some held unreasonable expectations and accusing them of having studied no more deeply than newspaper editorials.

Holt and the economy kept out of any further serious trouble and the deputy whom Menzies always thought of as 'Young Harold' was the unanimous choice of the party room when 'the great white chief' announced his retirement in January 1966. There was no obvious alternative and the new prime minister, who took office on Australia Day, could boast that he got there without stepping over a dead body. The 'son' had taken over from the 'father', Menzies declared the country to be in good hands, and there was an eagerness in the press and political circles to see if he could make his own mark.

Making only two immediate ministerial changes—both caused by retirements—Holt promoted in Dame Annabelle Rankin the first woman to hold a portfolio in a Federal ministry and in Malcolm Fraser a future prime minister. He did, however, signal a new style by acting more as chairman of a committee, by including the press in his overseas tours and being solicitous to their needs, and by presenting himself in an open and informal manner. The now silver-haired, still fit and good-looking prime minister, photographed in a wetsuit alongside his three bikini-clad daughters-in-law, looked the perfect choice to carry the Liberal Party into and beyond the 'Swinging Sixties'.

One substantial change occurred in March 1966 when Holt's government introduced the most significant modifications (until then) in the White Australia policy, lowering the requirements for non-European entry, residency and citizenship. The reforms reflected his determination to bring Australia closer to Asia. He made several trips to the region in 1966-67, visiting neutrals as well as friends. His personal style of diplomacy led him into mistakes and risks, such as the decisions to open an Australian embassy in Taiwan and to invite Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, prime minister of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, to visit Australia. Yet, as Gough Whitlam, the leader of the Opposition, pointed out in March 1968: '[h]e made Australia better known in Asia and he made Australians more aware of Asia than ever before'.

This awareness was fostered by the Vietnam War. Inheriting Australia's involvement in the defence of South Vietnam, Holt enthusiastically extended the April 1965 military commitment of 1500 personnel to 8000 in October 1967, and kept urging the Americans to send more forces and to maintain the bombing of the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam. He believed that the conflict resulted from China's thrust into South East Asia, that Australians were fighting to repel aggression and to honour treaty obligations, and that the Asian dominoes would fall if South Vietnam collapsed, thereby endangering Australia. Holt also accepted that Britain's impending withdrawal east of Suez meant Australia must secure the effective presence of the U.S.A. in Asia and the Pacific. An increased armed involvement in South Vietnam seemed the appropriate insurance premium.

Holt's personal plunge into the war was also fired by what Zara called 'Harry's most spectacular friendship' with the American president Lyndon Johnson. His off-the-cuff remark at the White House in July 1966—assuring Johnson that a staunch friend would go 'all the way with L.B.J.'—occasioned him embarrassment back home, yet, for Holt, an expression of loyalty did not denote servility. Rather, it reflected the genuine, whole-hearted and unsparing relationship between two men who shared many characteristics, and who fortified each other in the face of growing domestic criticism of the war. This hostility distressed Holt without affecting his resolve and its impact was eased when Johnson visited Australia in October 1966, one month before Federal elections which Holt won with a record majority.

Whereas 1966 was a good year, everything seemed to go wrong in 1967. The death of his brother Cliff in March—'a terrible blow'—unsettled him, though he had a natural or developed immunity to sadness. Relieved that he managed to get to Sydney in time for the funeral, he left immediately for a scheduled Asian tour. In Canberra, Whitlam had replaced Calwell as the leader of the Opposition, and his debating skills and quick mind gave him an ascendancy over Holt who, as the year progressed, lost his customary equanimity while he struggled through his tangled speeches. Labor's by-election victories in July and September hurt him politically. So did his failure to carry the May referendum to break the nexus between the numbers in the House and the Senate, though the simultaneous proposal—to include Aborigines in the national census and to empower the Commonwealth to legislate on Aboriginal affairs—won overwhelming approval.

The more serious wounds were self-inflicted. Holt was not prepared to discipline his own party or the coalition, animosities were rife, and he resisted party pressure for a much needed cabinet reshuffle. He also bungled the 'V.I.P. flights affair' in which the government was accused of misleading parliament over the existence of passenger manifests. Loyalty to a friend, Peter Howson, the minister for air, left Holt obviously floundering in the House. Disloyalty, possibly involving Holt's chief whip, and rumours of health problems, were fuelling doubts about his capacity to lead.

'Young Harold' appeared to reach his nadir with the half-Senate elections on 25 November 1967. The government's share of the popular vote of 50 per cent in 1966 fell to 42.8 per cent at a time when hostile anti-Vietnam demonstrations were clearly unsettling him. Yet he ended the political year with a triumph. Immediately before the Senate polls, the government decided not to follow Britain in devaluing the currency. (Sir) John McEwen, deputy prime minister and Country Party leader, and a long-standing and good political friend, returned from overseas and publicly attacked the decision, thereby threatening coalition unity. Holt met McEwen in private on 12 December, warned him that, with a few expected Country Party defections, the Liberal Party could and would govern alone if McEwen continued to defy a cabinet resolution, and published a detailed rebuttal of the deputy prime minister's statement.

Despite a year of setbacks, Holt had won a crucial political battle. Worn out, he was not depressed when he left Canberra for the last time on Friday 15 December for a weekend at the family home at Portsea on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. He intended to come back on Monday, fresh as ever because Portsea always worked a miracle cure, with plans for ministerial changes in the New Year and a major statement announcing a switch in foreign policy giving emphasis to European affairs.

Zara stayed behind in Canberra. Harold played tennis and relaxed with friends throughout Saturday. On the morning of Sunday 17 December 1967 he collected a neighbour Marjorie Gillespie, her daughter and two young men, and together they watched the lone English yachtsman (Sir) Alec Rose sail through the Heads. The party then went to Cheviot Beach where Holt changed into his swimming trunks, said that he knew the beach like the back of his hand, and, soon after midday, entered what everyone later agreed was a fierce and high surf. Harold was seen swimming freely out to sea when turbulent water suddenly built up around him and he disappeared. Help was called, a major rescue operation was mounted, and Zara and the immediate family arrived. By nightfall some 190 people were looking for the prime minister without expecting to find him alive. The search was scaled down on 22 December and officially terminated on 5 January 1968. Holt's body was never found.

A service attended by two thousand official guests was held at noon on 22 December in St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne. An estimated ten thousand mourners and Christmas shoppers listened to the service relayed by loudspeakers. The overseas dignitaries included a tearful President Johnson, Harold (Baron) Wilson, the British prime minister, the Prince of Wales and senior representatives of twelve Asian nations. Archbishop (Sir) Philip Strong, the Anglican primate, spoke of 'fidelity' as the mark of the man's life and work, and dwelt on Holt's commitment to Asia, to the maintenance of freedom among free peoples and to the liberation of those living under tyranny. Memorial services were held on the same day or later throughout Australia and in other parts of the world.

Considerable speculation followed Holt's disappearance. Every summer, Australians of all ages do foolish things in the water, and drown. Some commentators, nevertheless, found it impossible to believe that a prime minister, who was not in fact a strong swimmer, who had a sore shoulder and who entered a dangerous sea, could have acted foolishly. His customary fearlessness, a desire to 'show off', the likelihood of his being stunned or dragged down by debris, a simple miscalculation: these explanations were considered insufficiently momentous to match the gravity of the event. Stories circulated that he was distracted by political troubles, or that he had committed suicide, fulfilling his own premonition of not living beyond 60. Those best placed in December 1967 to judge his state of mind remain adamant that Harold, the life affirmer, was in good spirits, and that he was already thinking of a time beyond politics at Bingil Bay, near Innisfail, Queensland, where he and Zara had a shack and a virtually private beach, and which he described as his 'Shangri-La'. The probability is that the prime minister was simply another statistic of an Australian summer.

Harold Holt may not have been a visionary or a profound thinker, but he had worked diligently in serving and celebrating his country. His achievements as a senior minister in the postwar Menzies governments were considerable, he contributed to the nation's standing overseas and he helped his own party achieve a permanence lacking in its earlier manifestations. Overshadowed by Menzies, he had attributes which made him an admirable deputy and, in less turbulent times, a good leader: integrity, a willingness to listen, a sense of what was possible, and a team spirit which made him the least likely of his colleagues to undermine or gossip about the others. He could be stubborn, tough and politically courageous, but never ruthless. Loyal to friends and colleagues, tender towards his opponents and nice to everybody—irrespective of position—this thoroughly decent man was genuinely liked and missed on all sides. That, after thirty-two years in politics, was a remarkable epitaph.

Holt used to tell Calwell of his struggle to find a place and a name for himself. But he also had the capacity to bounce back from adversity. The death of his mother, his father's marriage to Thring's daughter whom Holt himself had escorted, the hardship and disappointments of the Depression years, a near-escape in April 1941 from a hit-and-run driver near Gundagai, New South Wales, an accident which killed his chauffeur and immobilized him less then three weeks before the 1955 elections, and Cliff's death in 1967: these events may have shaken him, but he became so self-absorbed that nothing appeared to touch him too deeply. If he had hoped for a different family life, the one he acquired in 1946 gave him financial security, a devoted wife and three boys who took his name in 1957, looked up to him and found him good fun, even though, given his long absences in Canberra, he was at best a weekend father who never closely followed their progress.

He liked the family to be together, when he was available. Menzies was one of the very few political visitors to the home at Toorak, and his appearances were rare enough. And Holt knew how to relax away from work. He gambled frequently at cards and on the racetrack, and the family needed Zara's fashion business to prosper financially and to buy the Portsea house. He occasionally tried golf and more often played tennis, but the most important outlet was spear-fishing to which the boys had introduced him. He loved the sport and would frequently, and unwisely, seek his quarry some 400 yards from his support-boat and in waters others thought too dangerous.

In many ways he was an ordinary bloke who liked to be liked. Humble, sensitive to criticism, gregarious—without revealing too much of himself—he could mix with anyone. He thrived on people, and liked women. In 1962 he wrote in his diary of a dinner companion that 'she is still a very lovely woman, but like a very ripe peach which should be eaten without delay'. Provoked by public disclosures that Marjorie Gillespie had been his lover, Zara claimed that Gillespie was just 'one of the queue'. Zara knew of Harry's affairs and tolerated them, but she also deliberately exaggerated the extent of his indulgence. Their marriage survived because the two lived separate lives; and Holt admired, and was lucky to have, such a feisty partner.

Holt was sworn of the Privy Council in 1953 and appointed C.H. in 1967. A memorial plaque has been laid under the waters of Cheviot Beach and a portrait by W. E. Pidgeon hangs in Parliament House, Canberra. Holt's estate was sworn for probate at $92,842.

Select Bibliography

  • Z. Holt, My Life and Harry (Melb, 1968)
  • D. Whitington, Twelfth Man? (Brisb, 1972)
  • G. Whitwell, The Treasury Line (Syd, 1986)
  • D. Langmore, Prime Ministers' Wives (Melb, 1992)
  • G. Henderson, Menzies' Child (Syd, 1994)
  • Bulletin, 31 May 1961
  • L. Brodrick, Transition and Tragedy (B.A. Hons thesis, Macquarie University, 1989)
  • Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Liberal Party of Australia papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Harold Holt papers (National Archives of Australia)
  • Andrew Holt papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Holt, Harold Edward (1908–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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