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Who was Harold Holt?

Like most readers, I turned first to the death scenes. The details are assembled in workmanlike fashion. Harold Holt spends the weekend before Christmas 1967 at his Portsea holiday house. There are dinners and paperwork. On the morning in question the one blemish is a phone argument with Billy McMahon, his Treasurer, a figure who only gets murkier with time. (How would a biography of McMahon read?)

Around midday Holt is with friends on the back beach when he is inspired to go for a swim. Where were the minders? The bodyguards? The common sense? Dame Zara Holt’s first question was whether he was wearing sandshoes or flippers. As it happened, sandshoes. The surf was high, the water treacherous, Holt had little control over his movements. It did not take long for him to disappear below the surface, never to re-emerge.

Tom Frame rejects motives like suicide, and elegantly scuttles the Chinese submarine theories. For him, the prime minister’s death is one of accidental drowning, a common mishap at Australian beaches, and only uncommon here because we are talking about the prime minister. A very recent coronial inquiry agrees with Frame. He concludes that if there are other reasons, we probably will never know them, and gives murky explanations too for why the sea does not give up its dead.

The headlines of that summer left Australians with a strange feeling that still lingers.

Here was a national leader who did not vanish after an election defeat, was not assassinated or forced to retire; he simply disappeared. Holt’s disappearance became the identifying moment in national memory, the start of the discussion: who was Harold Holt?

In an age when politicians have biographies written before they even become prime minister, what do we make of the first life of Holt coming out 38 years after his death? One of the most surprising facts is that he had the longest wait of any parliamentarian, 30 years, before becoming PM, a record the current member for Higgins wouldn’t equate with ‘being there for the long haul’.

Although he was Menzies’ favoured protégé, Holt was far from being Menzies’ epigone. They had worked together since the 1930s and could be seen as co-founders of the Liberal Party, two great survivors. He was an enthusiast, a man who took to portfolios with smooth and energetic purpose: Supply and Development, Trade and Customs, Labour and National Service, Air and Civil Aviation, Treasurer. He was good friends (‘mates’ would be a risky word to use) with many in the union movement, his motivation being productivity, his foes being the Reds.

Frame accentuates his successes in negotiation with all sides of industrial relations, but is honest about such disasters as Holt’s handling of the waterside workers’ strikes in the 1950s and economic reforms that almost lost them the 1961 election. Cheery moments intervene, like his pioneering of decimal currency. The book marks out the chronology well, though is remarkably uncritical of Holt’s politics and unanalytical of his psychology.

When pushed to say what Holt stood for, the words that recur lack real definition: progress, stability, initiative, values, freedom, co-operation. Indeed, they come close to the virtues extolled in Holt’s guiding creed, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. There was never a comprehensive vision of change for Australia; it was always steady as she goes. Britain was still an ideal, and unbounded progress a euphemism for unquestioned capitalism. His infamous faux pas during the Vietnam nightmare, ‘All the way with LBJ’, betrayed the anxious and shifting allegiances that remain cause for outrage and doubt to this day.

But another factor has to be considered. Why the Liberal Party? Menzies and Holt wanted a party that was over and against what it was not: not illiberal, not socialist, not crusty old Tory. Frame quotes Rohan Rivett from 1954: ‘They represent the liberal, middle of the road section of the party and in most major matters of policy are more broadminded and progressive than the majority of the benches behind them.’

Australia was comfortable and relaxed with a government that was neither radical right-wing nor radical left. The book is a goldmine for historians of the parties and their changing character. Menzies and Holt would find alien the closed debate and amoral actions of the current Liberal Government.

What is also missing is much about Holt’s family or personal life. Prurience sells, and perhaps Bishop Frame wishes to disappoint the headline editors, but he gives signs of a private world that wouldn’t look out of place in Euripides. There are clearly personal dramas and secrets in Holt’s life that help explain why he devoted all his time to politics. The inner emotional world of an extrovert would be the perfect subject for the next Holt biography. That, and the peculiar widespread view, well expressed in David Marr’s Barwick, that Holt ‘was nice to the point that his essential decency was viewed as weakness’.

‘One of the most likeable of Australian Prime Ministers,’ said the Sydney Morning Herald obituary. Likeable, nice? The final word on an Australian prime minister? Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Mark Latham. n

Philip Harvey is a Melbourne poet and librarian.


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