June 13, 2015

Horse 1916 - Australia's Prime Ministers - Nos 17 & 18 - Harold Holt & John McEwen

XVII - Harold Holt

Possibly the only thing that most people know about Harold Hold was that he went missing whilst swimming at Cheviot Beach and was presumed to have drowned. Whilst that might be interesting, it understates what was otherwise a tumultuous political career.

Holt was one of the members of the old United Australia Party before it imploded and he consequently joined Menzies as one of the first members of the Liberal Party of Australia.
As part of Menzies' first ministry he became Minister for Immigration and for Labour and National Service. It was as the Immigration minister that Holt would be the first cabinet official to start the process of dismantling the White Australia policy which had formally been adopted in 1901.

Under Holt, Section 127 of the Constitution which specifically removed the Aboriginal peoples from being counted in reckoning population was removed by referendum and the Commonwealth was given the power to make special laws specifically on behalf of Aboriginal peoples.
This is generally taken to mean that the referendum conferred citizenship and gave the franchise to Aboriginal peoples but this is incorrect. This might be seen as the start of Aboriginal civil rights but again, this is not really the case.

Holt moved to the Treasury in 1958 and oversaw the beginnings of the Reserve Bank of Australia as well as the move to Decimal currency, which finally saw fruition on the 19th day of his Prime Ministership.

Although Australia had been committed to the war in Vietnam under Menzies in 1962, under Holt that commitment was deepened with the establishment of the 1st Australian Task Force in August of 1966.
Labor leader Arthur Calwell opposed the increase in commitment and promised to end conscription and bring the troops home, and took this as an issue to the 1966 General Election in November but this would cost 9 seats in parliament and ultimately his leadership of the party with Gough Whitlam succeeding him in February 1967.

In the run up to the 1967 Aboriginal referendum along with a Senate election, much ado was made about an Royal Commission which was looking into a collision between the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Melbourne in 1964. This along with questions to do with the government use of VIP aircraft and the escalating costs of the RAAF's F111 bomber, led to the coalition losing two seats in the 1967 Senate election and with them, they surrendered the balance of power in the Senate to the Democratic Labor Party.

No government inquiry or inquest was ever held into Holt's disappearance and the Victoria Coroner's Office declared that this was nothing more than a death by misadventure with Holt having drowned in accidental circumstances.

XVIII - John McEwen

After Holt's disappearance, the leaderless Liberal Party would have appointed the then Treasurer William McMahon as his replacement but the leader of the Country Party and Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen, publicly announced that he would refuse to serve in a McMahon Government; citing differences over trade policy.

In announcing his position, McEwen became the only standing candidate in the leadership ballot on 9th December 1967. McEwen's position as Prime Miniser was only on a temporary basis and 22 days later, the Liberal Party was able to champion Senator John Gorton to the role of top spot; mainly with the support of a group led by Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser.

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