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Man of action: Harold Holt should be remembered for his ability to get tough jobs done

Friday, 08 December 2017

Man of action: Harold Holt should be remembered for his ability to get tough jobs done
Robert Menzies and Harold Holt

Government is considerably bigger than it was 50 years ago, but is it getting worse at doing stuff?

The thought occurred as we were researching the Menzies Research Centre’s forthcoming monograph on the achievements of Harold Holt’s 690 days as prime minister.

The drama of his drowning, 50 years ago next weekend, has overshadowed his many accomplishments during three decades in public life. He tackled big reforms and executed them well.

The complicated transition to decimal currency, for instance, almost three years in the planning, went remarkably smoothly. Cash registers and other devices had to be replace in large and small stores around the country.

Australians needed to be taught how to convert amounts in pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents.

For those too young to remember, there were 20 shillings to the pound and 12 pennies to the shilling. That’s 240 pennies to the pound, or 252 to the guinea. Oh, and then there were two shillings the florin, two shillings and sixpence in half a crown… you get the picture.

Would the bureaucracy be able to run such a bold reform today without a bungle? One cannot but have doubts.

When Holt went to Khancoban to open the Murray 1 Power Station on 22 July 1967, he had a good story to tell about “the happy combination of Government decision and planning with the enterprise of competitive entrepreneurs.

“It couldn’t have been a more timely tonic to me, having come from three days, afternoons and nights of Cabinet discussions on the Budget, to find at least here is one section of the Government financial provision which is keeping inside its Budget allocation, inside its estimate, and producing the results inside the scheduled time.”

The government-financed scheme was already collecting revenue on the sale of power from its $800 million investment.

“So the government is not only getting this scheme completed within the time allowed for it and wishing the cost estimated for it 17 or 18 years ago, but it is getting its money back on time as well.”

Happy days. - Nick Cater

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