Disappearance of a prime minister

In 1967 the prime minister of Australia walked into the ocean and was never seen again.

Harold Holt
Australian News and Information Bureau, via National Archives of Australia [Public domain]
Harold Holt was a keen swimmer and spear-fisher. But he was not a strong swimmer: twice in 1967 he got into trouble and nearly drowned. This wouldn’t normally be a huge deal, but Harold Holt also happened to be the prime minister of Australia. His press secretary even tried to warn him off such dangerous activities, to which Holt purportedly replied “what are the odds of a prime minister being drowned or taken by a shark?”

Pretty good odds, as it would turn out.

On the 17th of December 1967, Holt and some friends stopped at Cheviot Beach for a quick swim before lunch. (It was Cheviot Beach where one of his close calls had happened. See, if it were me and I had been vomiting seawater after nearly drowning, I wouldn’t go back to the same beach seven months later. But I suppose that’s why I’ll never be prime minister of Australia.)

The actual disappearance was swift and definitive. Holt’s friends did not want to go swimming: the currents and undertow looked too dangerous. One other person accompanied him, but they stayed close to shore. Holt did not. He swum out into the ocean, went under the water, and never came back up again.

Over the next few days hundreds of searchers looked for the country’s leader, to no avail. Holt was gone. This led to some rather complicated politics: the government of the time was a coalition between two political parties, the Liberal Party and the National Party (in 1967 known as the Country Party). Holt was the leader of the Liberals, and the deputy prime minister was from the Nationals. Their agreement required the prime minister to be from the Liberal Party, but the party would need to elect a new leader first. So the deputy prime minister – John McEwen – formed a caretaker government until that election could happen. He promised to step down as soon as the party had chosen someone to replace Holt.

And this is where it gets messy. One of the potential replacements, William McMahon, was not popular with the Nationals. Their power base was mainly rural voters and McMahon was in favour of deregulation and free trade, which they perceived as a direct threat to their constituents. So interim prime minister McEwen made it known that if McMahon was chosen his party would leave the coalition – thus dissolving the government.

The Liberals wisely did not elect McMahon, their selection became the new prime minister, and Holt’s disappearance remains unresolved. Speculation includes a heart attack, sharks, or even that he was a Chinese spy and had been recalled to China by submarine… but that was a pretty blatant conspiracy theory peddled to sell books.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]


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