Chapter 1: Introduction
The Found Prime Minister
An Australian Politics wikibox tl
An Australian Politics wikibox tl
When Harold Holt succeeded Robert Menzies as Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister the situation had been remarkably different. Menzies had led the Liberal-Country Coalition to seven successive electoral victories, and over 16 years in government. Conservative Premier’s governed the majority of states, and the previous July the Liberals under Robert Askin had ended a 24 year old dynasty of Labor government in Australia’s most populous state – New South Wales. As Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party for the past decade, and Treasurer since 1958, Holt was Menzies’ heir apparent and elected unopposed as Liberal leader.
Holt’s first year in office was one long honeymoon. The Dollar was adopted in February 1966 without any major hitch, and the following month changes to the residency requirements for new immigrants becoming naturalised citizens in effect eliminated what remained of the White Australia Policy. Holt faced a general election that November, with a strong economy and Australia’s involvement in Vietnam being popular the Liberals were always the favourites to win re-election. Holt’s changes were helped even more by the septuagenarian Labor leader Arthur Calwell, who’s commitment to nationalisation, the White Australia Policy and staunch opposition to the Vietnam war seemed more in tune with the Australia of the 1940s than the 1960s. Holt led the Coalition to a victory greater than any that it had experienced under Menzies, with a 40 seat majority in the House of Representatives.
Nineteen sixty seven was to be a much tougher year for the government. In January Calwell had finally retired as Opposition Leader, replaced by his long serving (although not always loyal) Deputy Gough Whitlam. University educated, socially liberal – Whitlam was a different sort of socialist to Calwell, someone who could reach beyond the working class ALP heartlands and appeal to younger, liberal, middle class voters who had grown tired of the Liberal Party. Whitlam regularly bested Holt in debate, and gave Labor the very real prospect of eventually regaining power.
In May Holt suffered another setback when the government’s proposals for Senate reform were rejected in a nationwide referendum. The Corio by-election that July saw Labor’s Gordon Scholes gain a seat the Liberals had held since 1949 on an 11% swing. In October it emerged that ministers were using government aircraft for personal use, the controversy was made worse when the Liberal Senate Leader John Gorton revealed that Holt had inadvertently misled parliament on the matter. The Half Senate election that November was a new low, the Liberals lost two seats and the Democratic Labor Party held the balance of power. Many in the federal Liberal Party began to have serious doubts about Holt’s leadership capacity. On top of this Holt suffered from health difficulties. A shoulder problem had plagued him on and off since youth, and flared up again in late 1967. The Half Senate campaign had been particularly gruelling and had forced him to become reliant on physiotherapy and painkillers.
Holt also faced troubles from within his own party. The leader of his junior coalition partner, and Deputy Prime minister, John McEwen was known to detest the Treasurer, and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, William McMahon. The feeling was mutual, and was partially due to political differences – McEwen was an interventionist protectionist, McMahon was pro free trade and pro free market – and partially due to a clash of personalities. McMahon was open in declaring his ambition to one day become Prime Minister.
On 12th December 1967 the chief whip Dudley Erwin sent the Prime Minister a short letter:
My Dear Harold
During the last six months of the parliament and to this present time, various members at all levels within the party have expressed to me feelings of disquiet. This same feeling seems to be permeating the electorate and is being followed up in the press.
Do you personally feel that there could be some reason for this attitude? Do you think it is of sufficient importance for me to probe more deeply into these problems, if you feel that, in fact, there are problems? And to make a further report to you?
I am writing to you only in view of what I think is the seriousness of the situation at the moment and to leave it to your evaluation and judgement and to whether you would like a summary of the situation.
On 15th December Holt left Canberra - Erwin’s letter in his briefcase - to relax at his retreat at Portsea, Victoria. He was deeply troubled by the events of recent months: His own performance in government, growing government instability, the threat posed by McMahon, and his own ill health. On the morning of Sunday 17th Holt left to visit Point Nepean. Holt was accompanied by his neighbour (and lover) Marjorie Gillespie, her daughter Vyner, Vyner’s boyfriend Martin and family friend Alan Stewart. It was a hot day, and Holt insisted on cooling off before heading home for lunch. They stopped at Cheviot beach, an exposed beach with a heavy surf. Holt dashed into the water, with Alan Stewart following behind. The sea was rough. Suddenly Stewart saw Holt’s head dip beneath the water.
For a moment a nightmare flashed through his mind, what if the Prime Minister were to drown? Or disappear? He had no bodyguard, and it was only the five of them alone on the beach.
Suddenly Holt’s head reappeared, the Prime Minister was alive. He acknowledged Stewart, and swam back to shore. Australia’s 17th Prime Minister was safe...for now.