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Harold Edward Holt CH

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Prime Minister, 26 January 1966 to 19 December 1967
United Australia Party, 1935 to 1944; Liberal Party of Australia, 1944 to 1967

Athletic, charming, and possessing a prodigious work ethic, Harold Holt (1908-1967) was arguably Robert Menzies’s most loyal and trusted minister, and natural successor.1 His parliamentary achievements over 32 years, much of which were in government, are often overshadowed by the tragic circumstances of his death.

Born in Sydney, Holt studied law at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1930 and becoming a barrister and solicitor. Having joined the UAP in 1933 he unsuccessfully contested the federal seat of Yarra, standing against James Scullin in 1934. The following year he won a by-election for Fawkner, which he held until it became Higgins in 1949. Holt gained a junior Cabinet position when his mentor Menzies became party leader in 1939 but was demoted the following year. Having enlisted in the army in World War II, he was recalled to Parliament when three Cabinet ministers died in the Canberra air disaster.2 Holt served as Minister for Labour and National Service until the Coalition Government’s defeat in 1941 and resumed his legal practice while in Opposition. In 1946, he married Zara Fell (née Dickins), adopting her three sons.3

Holt returned to the Labour and National Service portfolio (and added Immigration) when the UAP-Country Party coalition won the 1949 election. He oversaw Australia’s massive increase in post-war immigration, public works programs, and conscription during the Korean War, and remains Australia’s longest serving Minister for Labour/ Employment. In 1956, Holt became deputy leader of the Liberal Party and Leader of the House. Two years later he became Treasurer, establishing the Reserve Bank and becoming the first Treasurer to chair World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings. Here he observed that ‘finance ministers – who normally must exhibit the professional gloom of the undertaker – are never happier than when exclusively together’.4

After Menzies retired in 1966, Holt replaced him unopposed. His Government established two defining policies: the Migration Act 1966 signalling the White Australia policy’s demise, and the 1967 referendum which removed Constitutional discrimination against Indigenous Australians. Holt’s term was dominated by the Vietnam War where he supported Australia’s involvement alongside the USA. He maintained a close friendship with USA President Lyndon Johnson – borrowing the campaign slogan, ‘all the way with LBJ’. As Prime Minister he also implemented Australia’s transition to decimal currency in 1966.

Holt became the third Australian Prime Minister to die in office when he disappeared in rough water off Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, Victoria, and was presumed drowned. His memorial service in Melbourne brought together the largest group of world leaders in Australia’s history, including the Prince of Wales, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and President Lyndon Johnson.

William Edwin Pidgeon

Sydney-born portraitist, cartoonist and illustrator William Edwin ‘Wep’ Pidgeon (1909-1981) was a respected caricaturist and three-time winner of the Archibald Prize. He attended the JS Watkins Art School and East Sydney Technical College before becoming a cadet artist with the Sunday News in 1926. He later worked for a range of newspapers including the Daily Guardian, the Sunday Sun, Smith’s Weekly, the World and the Daily Telegraph. His cartoons for the Australian Women’s Weekly in the 1930s made him a household name. Pidgeon worked as a war correspondent and artist for Consolidated Press Ltd in World War II, depicting the aftermath of battles in Darwin, Morotai, New Guinea and Borneo. Disillusioned with the constraints of cartooning, Pidgeon focused on building a career as a portraitist, winning the Archibald Prize three times. His HMC portrait of Harold Holt was painted posthumously. He also wrote art critiques for the Daily Telegraph and illustrated a number of books. His work is represented in several major public collections, including the Australian War Memorial.5

Harold Edward Holt
by William Edwin Pidgeon
Oil on canvas
115.3 x 90 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. Information used in this biography is taken from: IR Hancock, ‘Holt, Harold Edward’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1996; ‘Australia’s prime ministers: Harold Holt’, National Archives of Australia; J Hawkins, ‘Harold Holt: an urbane treasurer’, Economic Roundup, issue 1, 2012, pp. 59–74. Websites accessed 31 August 2021.
2. ‘Canberra air disaster, 1940’, Fact Sheet 142, National Archives of Australia, accessed 4 September 2021.
3. ‘Harold Holt’s partner: Zara Holt’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 21 August 2021; T Frame, The Life and Death of Harold Holt, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005, p. 34.
4. Hawkins, op. cit., p. 64.
5. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: P Spearritt, ‘Pidgeon, William Edwin (Wep) (1909–1981)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2012; ‘William Edwin Pidgeon (WEP)’, artist website; ‘Pidgeon, William Edward (‘WEP’)’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 780. Websites accessed 25 March 2021.

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