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On This Day In 1966: Menzies Retires, Holt Government Takes Office

Having announced his retirement on January 20, Sir Robert Menzies officially departed the prime ministership on this day in 1966. Harold Holt’s first ministry was sworn in at the same time.

It was a historic moment 50 years ago that brought to an end the political career of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies had been Prime Minister for two years between April 1939 and August 1941. He formed the Liberal Party in 1944 and served for six years as Opposition Leader before defeating the Chifley Labor government in December 1949.

Menzies went on to win six more elections in 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963. When he retired, he had been prime minister for 16 years and 5 weeks.

Harold Holt’s first Cabinet meeting – January 26, 1966

Harold Holt took office at the age of 57 with a ministerial career that had started 26 years earlier. He had first served under Menzies in 1940 and had been Treasurer since 1958.

Holt’s first ministry largely maintained the final Menzies ministry, including Dr. Jim Forbes as Minister for Health, Doug Anthony as Minister for the Interior and Ian Sinclair as Minister for Social Services. They are now the only ministerial survivors of the Menzies’ governments. Forbes is 92, whilst Anthony and Sinclair are each 86.

Holt gave Malcolm Fraser his first ministerial office. The future prime minister, and 35-year-old member for Wannon, became Minister for the Army. Fraser died last year, aged 84.

The Holt ministry also included three other future prime ministers. John McEwen, the Minister for Trade and Industry, would briefly replace Holt in December 1967 when Holt drowned at Portsea. Senator John Gorton, the Minister for Works, would replace McEwen in January 1968. Holt appointed William McMahon as Treasurer. McMahon would become prime minister in 1971.

Holt’s Attorney-General, Billie Snedden, would become Liberal leader after the coalition lost office to Gough Whitlam in 1972. He would be denied the prime ministership when Malcolm Fraser toppled him in 1975.

Holt also appointed a woman, Senator Dame Annabelle Rankin, as the Minister for Housing. Rankin died in 1986, aged 78.

Following Menzies’ retirement, 27-year-old Andrew Peacock replaced him as the Liberal member for Kooyong. He held Kooyong until 1994 and was twice leader of the Liberal Party. Peacock is now 76 and lives in the United States.

Politically, this day marked an important transition for the coalition government. History shows it presaged seven years of turmoil before the coalition lost office in December 1972.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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