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Disappearance of a Prime Minister

On this day fifty years ago, December 19, 1967, it was announced that the then-Prime Minister of Australia, Harold Holt, was officially presumed dead. Mr. Holt, who had been Prime Minister for 22 months, from January 1966, had disappeared two days earlier while swimming in the ocean at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, in the state of Victoria. His body was never found, despite a three-week search, and “one of the most intriguing mysteries of modern Australia was born” – along with multiple conspiracy theories. These theories included that he had been a spy for the Chinese and was picked up by one of their submarines; faked his death; been taken by a UFO; committed suicide; been killed in a botched kidnapping, with the perpetrators motivated by the decision to increase Australian troops in Vietnam; or even that he had been assassinated by the CIA.

According to the National Archives of Australia,

Without determining the cause of Holt’s death, a joint report by Commonwealth and Victoria Police, submitted in January 1968, concluded that, ‘… there has been no indication that the disappearance of the late Mr Holt was anything other than accidental’. The report (see copy on file A1209, 1968/8063) found that his last movements followed a routine domestic pattern, his demeanour had been normal and despite his knowledge of the beach, the turbulent conditions (high winds, rough seas and rip tides) overcame him. The explanations put forward for a failure to find the body included an attack by marine life, the body being carried out to sea by tides or becoming wedged in rock crevices.

While a variety of theories have been expounded about Holt’s disappearance, the Commonwealth Government did not deem a formal inquiry necessary, accepting the conclusions of the Police report.

Harold Holt with ABC crew, October 4, 1966. (Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation Flickr page, used under Creative Commons License.) “At Home with Harold Holt: L-R Prime Minister Harold Holt, ABC cameraman Don McAlpine and Director John Tingle (ABC Supervisor of TV News, Sydney) discuss underwater sequences during filming of the PM for a Weekend Magazine story from his weekend home at Portsea, Vic. The program was broadcasts [sic] on the ABC on 10/4/1966 a year before his death.”

The Prime Minister’s Department file regarding the events, which includes the police report, has been digitized and made available online by the National Archives. We also hold a copy of the police report here at the Library of Congress, as well as a report by a team at The Age newspaper. Various other sources have also been digitized, including the documents that were in Mr. Holt’s briefcase at the time of his disappearance, condolence letters from foreign dignitaries, and a file on the constitutional considerations related to the swearing in of an interim Prime Minister. A mute, unedited film of a reenactment carried out by witnesses and the police the day after the disappearance is also available.

In September 2005, the Victorian State Coroner issued a finding that Holt had simply drowned while swimming. At the time of the disappearance, under the Coroners Act 1958 (Vic), coroners were unable to investigate a death where a body was not found. This was because the legislation provided that the Coroner only had jurisdiction “to hold an inquest concerning the manner of the death of any person who is slain or drowned or who dies suddenly or in prison or while detained in any mental hospital within the meaning of the Mental Hygiene Act 1958(a) and whose body is lying dead within the district in which such coroner has jurisdiction” (section 6(1)(a), emphasis added). This situation was changed by the Coroners Act 1985 (Vic), which stated that “[a] coroner has jurisdiction to investigate a death if it appears to the coroner that the death is or may be a reportable death” (section 15(1)), with “death” defined to include “suspected death” and “reportable death” to include either where the death occurred in Victoria or the body is in Victoria (section 3). There is similar wording in the current legislation, the Coroners Act 2008 (Vic).

The reopening of the 38-year-old case by the Coroner “was not motivated by fresh doubts about the conservative prime minister’s presumed death at 59,” but instead by the fact that the 1985 law change enabled the review of more than 100 suspected drowning cases between 1961 and 1985 in which the bodies were not found. In his findings, the Coroner said “[i]t is sad that, over the years, all of these fanciful or unusual theories about Mr. Holt’s disappearance should receive public ventilation, overshadow his life and require an explanation. A simple reading of the original investigative material provides the real and credible explanation.”

Cheviot Beach, Victoria (Feb. 15, 2014). (Source: Flickr user Robyn Cox, used under Creative Commons License.)

Indeed, Mr. Holt appears to have been an interesting character. He won various awards at high school for “sporting ability, character and leadership.” He graduated with a law degree from the University of Melbourne and, after being admitted to the bar, worked as a solicitor before entering politics, first standing for a seat in the federal Parliament in 1934 at the age of 26. Although he lost that election, he did win a seat the following year and later became the youngest minister in Parliament in 1939, gaining a full Cabinet post in 1940. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “[t]he new member for Fawkner was a dashing figure: of middle height, fit and handsome, with thick black hair swept back, well-tailored clothes, a ready smile and a natural charm.” While a government minister, he enjoyed overseas travel with his wife, Zara, making numerous stopovers during official trips and making the most of “new political and social contacts, opportunities to swim, dine and party, and even to make the Savoy Hotel in London ‘a second home’.” Apparently, the “hard-working and hard-playing Harold astonished everyone with his stamina.” Mr. Holt served as the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party for more than a decade, before being elected leader of the party upon the retirement of Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

The relatively brief period of time during which Mr. Holt was Prime Minister was also quite eventful in a historical sense. It saw, for example, legislation enacted that largely rescinded the country’s “White Australia” immigration policy (a policy which Holt had previously supported when he was the immigration minister) and the holding of a referendum regarding references to Aboriginal peoples in the Constitution, both of which I’ve previously written about for this blog. It also took place during the Vietnam War, with Mr. Holt strongly supporting Australia’s involvement, even stating on the White House lawn during a visit to the U.S. that Australia would be “all the way with LBJ” (with whom, according to his wife, he had a “most spectacular friendship”).

Mr. Holt was the third Australian Prime Minister to die in office; there have been none since.

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