Cameron Stewart, Associate editor | October 18, 2008
Article from: The Australian
WHEN Harold Holt vanished under the crashing waves of Portsea's Cheviot Beach on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula early in the summer of 1967, the tragedy was fated to become a playground for myth-makers.
No Western leader had just disappeared without trace. There was no body, no explanation and no conclusion.
Holt, Australian prime minister since January 1966, seemed too important to suffer such a mundane fate as an accidental drowning. There had to be more to it, according to conspiracy theorists.
And so they went searching. During the 41 years since, they have delivered a mixed bag of theories, ranging from the highly improbable to the absurd.
Holt has been snatched at various times by Chinese submarines, sharks and by foreign frogmen. As recently as last year, the now defunct Bulletin magazine tried to fuel the theory that the prime minister was deeply depressed and committed suicide on that fateful day, December 17.
A new re-enactment documentary is wading into these dangerous waters to once again examine Holt's final moments. The Prime Minister is Missing, a dramatised program funded by government production company Screen Australia (formerly Film Australia) in association with ABC television, reaches its own conclusion.
It dismisses the absurdities of submarines and gives little oxygen to the suicide theory. Instead, it says, Holt was of unstable mind and health on the day he made his fateful decision to step into the surf and this caused him to fatally misjudge the situation.
"The (Victorian police) homicide squad did not investigate Holt's personal or political life," filmmaker Peter Butt says. "I began focusing on one question: was there something wrong with Harold Holt that day? Holt's ill health and his stressful political life converged on that day."
The documentary argues that Holt's judgment on the day of his death was likely to have been seriously impaired by the enormous weight of his political problems. At the time, Holt's political fortunes were in decline. Despite winning a landslide victory the previous year in an election fought on Australia's participation with US forces in the Vietnam War, the Liberal prime minister's popularity was waning after his mishandling of several controversies, including one over the misuse of VIP aircraft.
Holt was also a victim of growing sniping from MPs within his own Coalition government, many of whom saw him as weak and indecisive. This has long been known and, until now, has not been given much weight as a factor in Holt's death.
But Butt's documentary depicts Holt's political problems as more serious than previously believed and shows the prime minister as being only too aware of their gravity at the time of his death.
As evidence, Butt points to documents in Holt's briefcase at the time of his disappearance in the surf - including some not previously reported - that left Holt in no doubt about his precarious political position.
"They reveal the depth of the war between (treasurer and later prime minister Billy) McMahon and (deputy prime minister and Country Party leader John) McEwen and how, after a long period of stability under (Robert) Menzies, Holt's government was on the verge of implosion," Butt says.
Specifically, Butt says Holt's briefcase contained two letters written to the prime minister by McMahon and governor-general Richard Casey about a controversial meeting held between the two.
McEwen had asked Casey to meet McMahon to complain about McMahon's close relationship with leading financial journalist and publisher Maxwell Newton. McEwen, a protectionist at loggerheads with McMahon over trade policy, had accused McMahon of leaking cabinet secrets to Newton who, McEwen claimed, had passed them to the Japanese trade office in Sydney.
McMahon was furious with Casey's intervention and Holt was in receipt of their separate letters detailing what took place. The letters served to highlight the extent of the rift between McMahon and McEwen, the two most powerful men in his government.
Also in Holt's briefcase was a letter from the chief government whip, Dudley Erwin, alerting Holt that all levels of the party were questioning his leadership.
"To be in Holt's possession that weekend, the documents obviously concerned and stressed him," Butt says. That may be so, but The Prime Minister is Missing then takes a large leap of faith to imply that these pressures muddied Holt's judgment to such an extent that he dived into dangerous surf when he otherwise might not have.
The prime minister's son, Sam Holt, who was 28 when his father died, bluntly rejects this line of argument.
"I disagree with that. The political pressures on my father have been greatly exaggerated," he tells Inquirer. "I don't believe there was ever any serious move for a challenge. The Liberal Party was not in bother. It was another five or six years before they were out of office."
Sam Holt also says his father was not depressed or unstable at the time of his disappearance. "Knowing my father as I did, I know the nature of the man and can give a more accurate assessment of his mental processes. He was by nature extremely cheerful and optimistic. He would not have deliberately taken a risk.
"He had spoken to me some weeks before and told me of his plans to contest the next election, but after that, he said, he would stand down because there were other things in life he wanted to do."
The Prime Minister is Missing claims Harold Holt's mind also may have been clouded by morphine, which he had been prescribed for a shoulder injury. Although Holt's Canberra doctor had given him a clean bill of health before the accident, Holt's lover Marjorie Gillespie, who was on the beach when he disappeared, told police he had a shoulder injury.
"Police records mention Holt was seeing an orthopaedic surgeon in Melbourne for the injury," Butt says. "Inexplicably, the police did not interview the surgeon. If they had, they would have discovered that Holt was on a powerful medication, which could explain why he was acting irrationally the weekend he died." Holt may have been prescribed morphine but there is no direct evidence that he had taken the drug before his swim.
Butt says that in making the documentary, which features interviews with key figures inHolt's life and death, he deliberately gave little credence to the theory that Holt committed suicide.
"What defeats the suicide story for me is that he was there with four witnesses on the beach," he says. "Very few people commit suicide with witnesses present. No one thought it (suicide) was in his character and all those who know him dismiss the idea completely."
This view is backed by Holt's biographer, Tom Frame, and previously has been supported by Holt's former ministerial colleagues Malcolm Fraser, James Killen and Alexander Downer Sr.
Butt gives little weight to the theory that Holt was facing sexual blackmail at the time of his death. It has been rumoured in the past that Wilton Gillespie, Marjorie's husband, was about to name and shame Holt as the co-respondent in divorce proceedings. However, Butt says all parties involved, Marjorie and Wilton Gillespie and even Holt's wife, Zara, knew of the relationship and that such a scenario was highly unlikely.
That Holt drowned has never been seriously disputed, despite the madcap submarine theories. The Victorian coroner finally re-affirmed in 2005 that Holt died by accidental drowning. The remaining questions of whether this accident happened because he was a man of ego who overestimated his swimming abilities or whether his personal troubles and medication clouded the clarity of his decision-making is one that can never be resolved beyond doubt.
Ainslie Gotto, secretary of the chief whip's office in 1967 and later an aide to John Gorton when he succeeded Holt as prime minister following the McEwen interim, believes thereis merit in the theory put forward by Butt's documentary.
"The coming together of these things, the tiredness, the problems, the taking of drugs like morphine, might well have caused an error of judgment," she says.
This ongoing fascination with Holt's death partly reflects how we struggle to accept the death of powerful people by conspiracy-free means. To this day, millions do not believe US president John F. Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin with a $15 gun and a scrambled-egg mind. Similarly, there are many who can never accept that Britain's princess Diana was the unfortunate victim of a drunk driver.
Likewise, Holt's fate will always be the subject of mystery and conjecture because it can't be proved beyond doubt whether he was simply as silly as the next bloke: that he went for a swim in dangerous surf and didn't come back. No more and no less.
The Prime Minister is Missing screens next Thursday at 8.30pm on ABC1. It is part of Screen Australia's Making History series.
Other productions coming up on ABC TV are Menzies and Churchill at War, Infamous Victory: Ben Chifley's Battle for Coal and Monash the Forgotten Anzac. A previous documentary by Butt, Who Killed Dr Bogle and Mrs Chandler?, screened in 2006 and gave the ABC one of its highest ratings.