The Treasurer, Peter Costello, says that the elevation of a deputy leader to the leader’s position allows a government to regenerate and pursue new policy directions.
Launching a biography by Tom Frame of former Prime Minister Harold Holt, Costello said “when Holt became Prime Minister the Government had the opportunity to reconsider options that had previously been considered and rejected.”
After 10 years as deputy, Holt became Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister in January 1966, following the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies who had held the office for 16 years. He disappeared in the surf at Portsea on December 19, 1967.
Costello has been deputy leader of the Liberal Party since May 1994 and Treasurer since March 1996.
Costello’s speech at the Malvern Town Hall, in the heart of his electorate of Higgins, the seat also held by Harold Holt, is a less than subtle indication of his impatience to assume the prime ministership.
This is the text of Treasurer Peter Costello’s speech at the launch of Tom Frame’s biography of Harold Holt, delivered at the Malvern Town Hall, Malvern, in the Melbourne electorate of Higgins.
I clearly remember 17th December 1967: the day Harold Holt disappeared in the surf off Portsea. It is my first clear memory of a political event. I was 10 years old. I was watching television in our family home. Regular programming was interrupted and the announcement was made that the Prime Minister was missing.
My reaction, like that of so many Australians, was one of shock. How did the Prime Minister go missing? Will he be rescued? Will his body be found? The days of fruitless searching ended with no answers or explanations – just a sad realisation that it was over and he was lost.
All Australians shared in this sense of loss. Of course the loss was much greater for Harold’s family – and I would especially like to acknowledge Sam, one of Harold’s sons, who is with us today. The riddle of the loss spawned its own industry of bizarre yarns and tales. And it cut short a Prime Ministership that lasted less than 23 months.
In the broad sweep of history we like to characterise a Prime Minister by a major issue or event:- Curtin – war, Chifley – bank nationalisation, Menzies – our longest serving Prime Minister, Holt – disappearance, Gorton – Commonwealth power, McMahon – 1972 election defeat etc. In that way of remembering history the defining event of the Holt Prime Ministership becomes not his life but his death. In popular history it has come to overshadow his many achievements.
And the popular history of the Liberal Party is sometimes told as moving from its apex under Sir Robert Menzies to decline through Holt, Gorton and McMahon to inevitable defeat in 1972.
Of course these are not the facts. After Menzies retired in 1966 the Coalition, under Holt, went on to win 82 out of 124 seats in the Federal election of November 1966, increasing its majority from 20 to 40. This was a swing of 4.3 per cent to the Coalition. The Coalition received 49.9 per cent of the 1st preference vote. The two Party preferred result for the Coalition was 56.9 per cent, the highest level ever.
Of course by that stage Arthur Calwell had led Labor to defeat in 1961 and 1963 and was saddling up for his third defeat as leader. Calwell certainly helped the outcome in 1966. And at that stage Vietnam was not the political liability it was to become. But there is no doubt that the passing of the mantle from Menzies to Holt lifted support for the Liberal Party even though Sir Robert as the founder of the Party was Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister.
I was somewhat shocked to read a headline in “The Australian” on the 5th of August 2005 reading: “Holt, the real Whitlamite”. I think Harold Holt would have been shocked too. The idea that Whitlam, who would follow Holt, could somehow define his predecessor is absurd. And Holt’s ministerial career was far more substantive than Whitlam’s.
The headline misconstrued an article written by Tom Frame that was trying to make the point that an adoring press had over the years given a lot of credit to Whitlam for the achievements of Holt.
If the headline writer wanted to do an interplay between the two it should have read: “Whitlam a real Holtite”. But I am sure this would have come as even more shocking news to Harold Holt.
What Tom Frame was arguing was that Holt set in train a whole lot of changes, modernising Australia – a focus on Asia, independence from Britain, independence of the currency, the ending of the ‘white Australia’ policy, Commonwealth leadership on aboriginal affairs, and Commonwealth support for arts and culture.
Upon becoming Prime Minister Holt resurrected proposals that had been rejected by Menzies to allow ‘well qualified’ Asian immigrants access to family reunion and to reduce the qualifying period for non-Europeans to gain residency and citizenship from 15 years to 5 – the same as applied to Europeans.
It was a fundamental blow against the White Australia Policy. And the White Australia Policy had been a cornerstone of Australian policy since Federation.
The White Australia policy was bipartisan although it was much more passionately supported by the Labor than by the Liberal Party. And although most would today think it was a policy of racial discrimination, in fact it was introduced and justified as an arm of economic policy.
The tariff was designed to protect Australian goods from cheap imports manufactured with cheap labour. The tariff was justified on the grounds that it protected “European wage rates”. But if European wage rates could be threatened by “non-European wage rates” offshore, how much more would they be undermined by non-European labour on-shore? The White Australia Policy was designed to keep out non-Europeans who would bring “cheap labour” to Australia and thereby to protect union wage rates. The companies which paid arbitration rates were given tariff protection, and those white Australians who worked for those companies were given “wage protection” from “non-Europeans”. The White Australia Policy was considered integral to protecting wage rates.
As we now know, these were misconceived policies. And from the 1960s all were coming under pressure. The steps Holt took in relation to immigration recognised that Australia was modernising, and regardless of spurious economic argument, regardless of the strong public appeal of the White Australia Policy, a policy based on race was discrediting Australia in the eyes of a good part of the world.
Menzies was born in the 19th Century and had lived all his life under the system of tariff, arbitration and White Australia. Holt, who was 14 years younger, had done the same. The two shared a similar outlook. But when Holt became Prime Minister the Government had the opportunity to reconsider options that had previously been considered and rejected.
Options ruled out in earlier times were becoming possible, even necessary, as prevailing views began to change. The succession of Holt to the leadership of the Liberal Party allowed the Party to reconsider these issues. In important respects Holt gave the Liberal Party an opening to modernise in response to changing social and economic factors at work in Australia.
The Government’s position on the 1967 Referendum on Aboriginal Affairs is another example. It had two limbs – to remove the disqualification of Aborigines to be counted in the population and to enable the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people. Menzies had favoured the first limb but not the second. Holt decided to put both to referendum in the one proposal. It carried the largest majority of any proposal ever to be put to Referendum in Australia.
This is the origin of national responsibility for aboriginal affairs. On the whole the policy of the Commonwealth has been mixed, but on the whole it has been much better than the previous policy of the States. I believe it is entirely appropriate that indigenous policy be a matter of national responsibility and national priority.
Holt also emerged as a moderniser in relations with Asia. For the time, his travel to the region was extensive and showed a personal commitment to develop relations in this part of the world. Of course by the standards of a modern Prime Minister where travel is far easier, the tours of the region were less frequent. But achievements and policy have to be judged in the context of their time. By his time Holt was a moderniser in opening Australia to Asia and brought the Liberal Party and the Government with him.
It is interesting to wonder what might have happened if he had lived, and whether it would have led to an outcome different in 1972.
This is not to say that Holt did not have severe political challenges. Two issues that were eating away at his Government during 1967 were the controversy over the use of VIP flights and the Voyager disaster. Holt lost a by-election in the seat of Corio on the retirement of Sir Hubert Opperman and the half Senate elections of 1967 reduced the Government vote.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the state of Holt’s health as Christmas of 1967 approached. He was approaching 60 but he led an active life. There is no reason to suspect that he suffered any physical collapse when he entered the water on that fateful day.
Tom Frame deals well in debunking the more elaborate myths that came to be written and whispered in the years that were to follow.
The modern Liberal Party has produced six Prime Ministers now, book-ended by the longest serving and the second longest serving Prime Ministers in Australian history. Holt deserves a position of honour in this company. A decent man and a tolerant man, he had a full and successful ministerial career. He was the first Member for Higgins. He is still widely admired in the electorate.
He took the reins of the Liberal Party after a long period of leadership in a smooth transition from its founder. He took the opportunity to modernise the Party and set in train great changes which adapted Australia to a changing world. He took the Liberal Party to one of its greatest majorities. If he had lived longer he would have been able to continue the work. Perhaps, if he had, he could have saved the Party from the events that led to the defeat of 1972 and its disastrous consequences.
But the personal tragedy of Christmas 1967 intervened. Nonetheless the Liberal Party, the nation and especially the people in the electorate of Higgins owe him a great debt.