Harold Holt by Ross Walker

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Ross Walker has opted to tell history as a story. A tale of Holt’s private and public life is a useful way to bring to readers the personality of Holt the man while allowing the decisions relating to his public life to be reported. The book reveals that Holt’s private life influenced his decision-making in his official roles. Unlike the ever-rational Menzies, Holt’s path through life would be influenced by ‘personal preference’. Rightly was he categorized as ‘always one step further’. He “was a man of contradiction. He was mild-mannered yet passionate; his wife Zara said that ‘everything for Harry has to be lived with his whole heart’. He was measured, but he sometimes exceeded sensible limits and could not leave well enough alone” (1 – 2). The book also reveals that his wife was valued as of lesser importance to politics, and that his actions were governed by the philosophy that distinguished Wesley College at the time in its history when Menzies, Holt and McMahon were schoolboys there. Such considerations reveal who Harold Holt was.

While Robert Gordon Menzies was a giant among prime ministers, and his place in history assured by the very length of time that he held the reins of power, the years of his successor were every bit as pivotal even though Holt held office for a much shorter period. It was during this period of governance that several important events occurred, and significant pieces of legislation were debated. As Walker explains in several cogently argued chapters, the involvement of Australians in the Vietnam War, accessed via conscription, was a major legislative device that led to enormous social disruption. The concurrent partnership with the United States of America, the idolatrous relationship between President Johnson and Harold Holt in pursuit of the armed conflict, stamped the Holt years as markedly different.

The Holt administration saw the end of the White Australia Policy. Walker treats this major issue as a highly significant piece of legislation that was hard fought, bitter, and ambitious. Walker highlights how important this change was when he reminds his readers that aborigines until this time were classified as fauna rather than as members of the human race (129).

Holt is shown as an ambitious and modern political leader. He was loved by the media for his telegenic qualities and his vigorous good health.  Walker depicts him from his days at school as an action man, a sporting identity, a popular, gentle but ultimately self-destructive personality who failed to grow up. The description Walker presents is of a highly efficient treasurer, but a prime minister for which the task was too big. A journalist Allan Barnes comments on the toll that being Prime Minister was levying on the stressed Holt. At a party Holt appeared nervous as he showed his guests around. When discussing a particularly fine piece of abalone, “he’s showing it off the way a small boy would. The way his eyes light up as he urges us to try it! But how tired he looks. His back must be giving him trouble again” (269).

Barnes knew nothing of the squabbling ministers who were making Holt’s life a misery. Gorton was expressing his claim for leadership, Government Whip Dudley Irwin was criticizing Holt’s performance, William McMahon was working behind the scenes to depose the Prime Minister, and above all, the ongoing feud between McEwen (the Deputy PM) and McMahon was like a running sore that Holt had been forced to excise.

The story that Walker tells is an accurate and intimate description of a mid-century politician. It evokes an earlier world, a way of living less clinical than today and disappointing in that the burning issue in Holt’s life was not his wife and family but his politics. It was confronting to learn that he had a girlfriend, an intruder into the marriage about which wife Zara could do little.

The final tragedy in Holt’s life is told with the blame laid where it should have been – with Holt himself. It should have been obvious to the least experienced surfer that the ocean at Portsea was dangerous. Lifesavers had closed the beaches; Holt’s companions had warned against entering the water. But Holt would not be told. His bullheadedness produced the expected result – a lost Prime Minister and millions of taxpayers’ money spent in a fruitless search.

Harold Holt


By Ross Walker

La Trobe UP/Black Inc

ISBN: 978 176064 383 6

$34.99; 368 pp


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