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Memento : Issue 30
Harold Edward Holt Australia's 17th Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Harold Holt CH, is usually remembered for two things. The first is an off the cuff remark he made to President Lyndon Johnson on the White House lawn in June 1966. The second is the controversial manner of his death. But his contributions to Australian public life over three decades make him worthy of closer examination. Harold Edward Holt was born at Stanmore in Sydney on 5 August 1908. His early life was unsettled and lonely as his parents travelled in search of work and then divorced. Harold became a boarder at Melbourne's prestigious Wesley College where he demonstrated both academic and sporting prowess. After studying law at Melbourne University, he became a close friend of Robert Menzies and decided to pursue a political career. He was elected as United Australia Party (UAP) Federal member for Fawkner in 1935; joined the Liberal Party in 1945; and moved to the newly created seat of Higgins in 1949. He held the important portfolios of Labour and National Service (1940--41, 1949--58), Immigration (1949--56) and Treasury (1958--66). During these years he was responsible for introducing child endowment, administering Australia's post-war immigration program, enacting crucial reforms in industrial relations and the conversion to decimal currency. Holt is probably the most genial and well-liked politician to become Australia's Prime Minister. His colleagues appreciated his warm personality and kindly nature. Jim Killen described him as 'basically a friendly man' who gave 'encouragement to those around him'. Henry 'Jo' Gullett said Holt's greatest quality 'was the ability to see and sympathise with other points of view. This is very laudable in a politician. It meant that for a start he was generally liked and respected in the Parliament, regardless of party. It also meant that he had developed very good relations with the trade union leaders'. Sir Arthur Fadden said Holt was one of 'the kindest men I knew in politics'. Despite years of waiting, when Holt ascended to national political leadership, he had no burning desire to pursue a detailed policy program and no searing commitment to create new social or cultural institutions. He preferred pragmatism and was always ready to compromise. He did not set himself long-term goals. As Prime Minister, Holt is remembered for telling President Lyndon Johnson that Australia would be 'All the Way with LBJ' in Vietnam; dismantling the White Australia Policy; and legislating for an important 1967 referendum that changed the Commonwealth's approach to Indigenous affairs. His 22-month prime ministership ended when he disappeared while swimming off Cheviot Beach on 17 December 1967. When his body was not recovered, sensational rumours and controversial theories began to circulate purporting to explain his fate. The truth was very simple: he unwisely entered heavy seas and was swept away. A plaque was bolted to the rock floor at Cheviot Beach near where Holt disappeared. It read: 'In memory of Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia, who loved the sea and disappeared hereabouts on 17 December 1967'. There were several other memorials including a new wing for boarders at Wesley College; the naming of a Canberra suburb and Remembering Harold & Zara 4 MEMENTO News from the National Archives