Three months after Harold Holt disappeared forever in the tempestuous surf off Victoria’s Cheviot Beach on 17 December 1967, Gough Whitlam told parliament in a poignant eulogy to the late Prime Minister that Holt’s “place in the political annals of our nation remains to be fixed by the perspective of history”. Half a century after his dramatic departure, it is a timely occasion to appraise the contribution and legacy of the affable, sunny-natured man who led Australia briefly in the shadow of the long Menzies reign.
While Australians typically recall their seventeenth prime minister as that fun-loving, wetsuit-cladded bloke “who got lost in the surf”, it bears remembering that Holt was a proactive reformer and moderniser who irrevocably changed Australia and its place in the world. From his assumption of the prime ministership on Australia Day 1966 to the end of 1967, Holt’s less-than-two years in The Lodge proved to be a cultural watershed for Australia’s maturing nationhood.
Even prior to his elevation to the prime ministership in 1966, Holt had enjoyed an illustrious political career. Following his entry to Federal Parliament in 1935 as the member for Fawkner, Holt was appointed by Prime Minister Menzies in 1940 as the Minister for Labour and National Service. In that capacity he not only established harmonious relations with the trade union movement but introduced child endowment into Australia.
Later as Treasurer under Menzies from 1958 to 1966, he initiated major fiscal reforms including the establishment of the Reserve Bank of Australia and instigated the project to convert Australia to decimal currency, a transition he successfully oversaw as Prime Minister during his first few weeks in office.
Appreciating that the life of the nation was more than the sum of its economic parts, however, Prime Minister Holt did much to boost Australia’s artistic and cultural capital. As Rupert Myer reminded us in The Australian earlier this week, “it was 50 years ago that Harold Holt announced his government’s decision to support Australian cultural activity by establishing a council for the arts and a national gallery”.
Making the announcement to parliament on 1 November 1967, the Prime Minister said that the Australian Council of Arts would provide funding to theatre, drama, opera, ballet and film-making for television with an educational and cultural emphasis. The Holt government’s initiative was widely applauded by the press with the Bulletin crediting the Arts Council for “reviving many of the national cultural hopes and ambitions of an entire generation of Australians”.
One of Holt’s most salient policy reforms as Prime Minister was of course his liberalisation of the White Australia Policy. To be sure, the enforcement of the Migration Restriction Act had already been relaxed under Menzies with the abolition of the “dictation test” for new arrivals in 1958, but it was Holt who made the greatest strides towards the admission of non-European immigrants. Together with his Immigration Minister, Hubert Opperman, Holt broadened the eligibility criteria for non-European entry and brought parity to Australia’s naturalisation procedure, whereby non-European entrants could join Europeans by qualifying for citizenship after five years instead of the previous fifteen-year wait.
The Prime Minister justified the reforms on the basis of Australia’s increasing involvement in Asian developments, the rapid growth of trade with Asia, Australia’s greater participation in regional aid projects, the increase in the number of Asian students in Australian universities, the strengthening of diplomatic and military ties with Australia’s neighbours and the growth of tourism to and from the countries of Asia.
At the same time as helping Australia to accept its most recent citizens, he made the nation more at peace with its first. To this end, he campaigned enthusiastically for the 1967 referendum to include Aboriginal Australians in the nation’s population tally by repealing section 127 of the Australian Constitution. Calling for the removal of the offending provision, Holt told parliament that “section 127 is completely out of harmony with our national attitudes and with the elevation of the Aborigines into the ranks of citizenship which we all wish to see”. In his resolve to end racial discrimination, Holt also made Australia a signatory to the UN International Accord for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
In steps to elevate the status of women in public and professional life, the Holt government amended the Public Service Act and a raft of other Commonwealth employment legislation in November 1966. These reforms lifted the “marriage bar” to allow married women to enter and remain in the public service as well as making provision for unpaid maternity leave.
Meanwhile on the foreign policy front, Holt broke significant new ground by forging closer ties with Australia’s Asian neighbours. In April 1967, he told Parliament that “geographically we are part of Asia, and increasingly we have become aware of our involvement in the affairs of Asia. Our greatest dangers and our highest hopes are centred in Asia’s tomorrows”. While Menzies deserves credit for initiating Australia’s post-war overtures to Asia, most notably with Japan through the 1957 Commerce Agreement, it was Holt who intensified Australia’s engagement in the region.
Instead of calling in on London or Washington, Hold made his first prime ministerial trip abroad to South East Asia, where he held talks with the governments of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore on what Australia could do to assist in the achievement of social progress and economic development. Indeed such was Holt’s commitment to the region, that his political opponent Gough Whitlam told parliament that “Harold Holt possessed a very real presence in Asia. He made Australia better known in Asia and he made Australians more aware of Asia than ever before. This I believe was his most important contribution to our future which he made during his brief Prime Ministership”.
Whilst Holt’s famous remark of “All the way with LBJ” is often derided as blind sycophancy to the United States, his decision to escalate Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War was impelled by a vision that “beyond the clouds of war there was a horizon of peace, political stability, social justice and economic advancement” for the nations of South East Asia to prosper and flourish.
With Harold Holt’s brief prime ministership cut all too short by tragic circumstances, his two years in office had helped modernise the country and his far-sighted, benevolent foreign policy secured Australia’s place as an esteemed voice in the councils of the Asia-Pacific. In the words of his Country Party colleague, John “Jack” McEwen, Holt had also “brought to his administration a breadth of humanity” and an “enormous respect for the institution of parliament”. - MRC's Research Fellow, Dr David Furse-Roberts