Dec 7, 2017

Statement on Indulgence: 50th Anniversary of the Disappearance of Harold Holt – 7 Dec 2017

For 18 years I have been representing a seat that is named after Prime Minister Holt. I was very generously invited by the Speaker to a luncheon held in his offices yesterday afternoon with Holt family members and the Hon. Peter Costello and his former press secretary Tony Eggleton. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it. I passed on my regards and condolences to them when I saw them on the floor of the chamber yesterday. I specifically wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the loss of Prime Minister Holt, particularly given, as I said, I hold the seat named after him in this place today. This will be my last opportunity to do so in this manner before parliament rises.

Cheviot Beach is a very interesting place. I did reflect on the passing of Prime Minister Holt some number of years ago and decided to take the walk—it is in a national park—from Point Nepean around Portsea to the actual beach itself. Even on a calm day, you can see that it is a challenging place in which to swim, even for an experienced swimmer. On the day that I was there observing the place where the Prime Minister was taken, I found it to be a forbidding and challenging place in many ways; there was a lot of tumult and roiling of the water. When you read the Victoria Police and Federal Police report on the disappearance of Prime Minister Holt—which is challenging reading for anybody—you can see how dangerous the place was. It was like an encapsulation of the tumult of the times.

The other day I read a very good article by Tony Wright from The Age. When people reflect on the Prime Minister, they see that it was such a turbulent time. Some would say the period of time that we are in at present is turbulent. But that time was particularly turbulent in Australia, with the cultural eddies and flows that occurred as a consequence of the Vietnam War and the increasing public opposition to that war. There were so many societal and social changes that were occurring that Prime Minister Holt was part of. To some extent, the transition from former Prime Minister Menzies to Prime Minister Holt marked an epoch of change in Australia’s political and cultural history, very much leading, I think, to the elevation of Prime Minister Whitlam in 1972, after narrowly failing to win the 1969 election. If anybody opened the door for someone like Gough Whitlam, it was Prime Minister Holt.

When you read details of his political history, you see that he was a very young man when he entered politics. From reading biographies of, for example, Paul Keating, you see how young men were treated. In 1935, to be 27 when you were elected to parliament was phenomenally young. Twenty-seven is not so young to come into this place these days, but in those days, when the average age could well have been late 40s or early 50s, he was a very young man. He was obviously a man of great talent. To be promoted to the cabinet in 1939 on the doorstep of the Second World War at age 30 says a lot about his capabilities. He was elected deputy leader in 1956, and after the ’58 election he replaced Arthur Fadden as Treasurer.

The contribution that he made has significance for the constituency of Holt. According to the National Archives, when he was Minister for Immigration, between 1949 and 1956, he expanded the postwar immigration scheme and relaxed the White Australia policy for the first time. Forty-two per cent of people in my constituency speak a language other than English. I wonder what Harold Holt, if he were alive today, would make of that in a seat named after him, given he’d done so much in his work as Minister for Immigration, and as Prime Minister, to make something like that possible. We in Victoria often take for granted the magnificent multicultural fabric that makes up Melbourne and Victoria. I suspect that had Prime Minister Holt been alive today he would have had great satisfaction in seeing an outer suburban area, not far away from the Mornington Peninsula, with such incredible diversity and cultures from all over the world living in harmony.

The other thing I would refer to in particular is his role as Treasurer, when he oversaw the creation of decimal currency and the Australian dollar. I recall that that met with some resistance, particularly from Prime Minister Menzies, who wanted to call it the ‘royal’. As I said, he was such a pivotal figure in moving away from the Menzies era to a more progressive, open and enlightened Australia, part of that arc of trajectory in Australian political history from the Menzies era to the era of Gough and the substantial and profound social changes that happened. As I was saying, the gradual dismantling of the White Australia policy culminated in the 1967 referendum, so that the Commonwealth parliament was empowered to legislate for Indigenous people for the first time.

Others have spoken about the involvement in the Vietnam War. I would just note that these times were troublesome for Australian policymakers, who were reflecting on challenges in Asia and how they might impact on Australia. I would note, in relation to some of the comments that have been made about Prime Minister Holt, that it would have been a challenging set of circumstances for any Prime Minister at that period of time, with the pressures that he would have faced in making decisions about Australia’s role in the war in Vietnam. I make no comment about that.

It is a great tragedy that Harold Holt was lost at such a young age—59. I’m 55 at the moment, so he was only four years older than I am. We lost someone who was effectively still in the prime of his life and still had a great contribution to make to public life. To his family, particularly those who were here yesterday—his son Sam and Sam’s wife, Xenia, and his son Robert—to Tony Eggleton and in particular to Peter Costello, who was a friend of the family, I pass on my condolences and reassure them that on the anniversary of the passing of Prime Minister Holt we will certainly be making sure that the constituency remembers the person and the contribution he made to the seat that’s named after him.


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