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Tuesday, 12 March 1968


Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) (Leader of the Opposition) - No Australian Prime Minister, perhaps no Australian, has received in death so many rich and remarkable tributes as the late Harold Holt. The gathering of the great and the famous who assembled here almost overnight from all over the world for the memorial service in Melbourne is now part of our nation's history. And so, too, is Harold Holt himself now part of history, torn from the great political stage on which he had long played so notable and honourable a part, by the sea he loved, at the very spot in Australia which perhaps above all others he knew best and loved best. The other tributes paid to his memory may have been more dramatic. None is so appropriate, so full of meaning, as this final farewell from this House. For the late Harold Holt was above all else a great parliamentarian. He was at once the servant and the leader of this House. This is the place he knew best; this is the place where he was best known. Almost his whole adult life was spent as a member of this Parliament. His entire career, his sole vocation, was as a member of Parliament.

Among Australian Prime Ministers only his immediate predecessor and his immediate successor, the present Deputy Prime Minister (Mr McEwen), had served a longer term in Parliament. None bad so long an apprenticeship. None came to the greatest position in the country with better qualifications in terms of experience in the high offices of state. He was Leader of this House for a record period. It was in this capacity that 1, as Deputy Leader of my Party and responsible with him for the day to day arrangements between Government and Opposition, came to know him well. They were 6 years of widely fluctuating fortunes for the late Prime Minister and the government in which he was Treasurer throughout that time. So I saw him in many situations - in the stress of the economic decision for which he took responsibility in 1960 and 1961, in the difficulties of 1962 and 1963, which were the electoral aftermath of those decisions, and in the recovery of 1964-65. He had the great advantage of having himself served in Opposition. He was keenly aware of the rights, responsibilities, duties and difficulties of Opposition. His knowledge, and more importantly his understanding, of the procedures and purposes of Parliament was deep and he shared it freely. I have always acknowledged my personal debt to him and I do so again now.

Before becoming Treasurer and later Prime Minister, Harold Holt served as Minister for Immigration and Minister for Labour. He brought to fruition the postwar immigration scheme begun under the right honourable member for Melbourne (Mr Calwell) as the first Australian Minister for Immigration by the Chifley Labor Government. Significantly, Mr Holt's first action as Prime Minister was to announce liberalisation of our immigration regulations regarding Asians. As Minister for Labour he established more harmonious relations with the trade union movement than any non-Labor holder of that post has ever done. The key to his ability to establish such relationships with men of different backgrounds, attitudes and interests was his essential decency. He was tolerant, humane and broadminded. His suavity of manner was no pose. It was the outward reflection of a truly civilised human being. He was in a very real sense a gentleman. To most of us he may have seemed an uncomplicated man, yet when one reflects upon the shadows which fell over his life towards its end and the strong sense of foreboding which had come over him, it is clear that there was a complexity in his character which we barely glimpsed. No man seemed more suited to public life. He seemed the quintessence of a public man. Yet there was a private Harold Holt we hardly knew, the man who drew strength and solace in the vast silence and solitude of the ocean around our shores.

As Prime Minister he established the system by which my Deputy and I may travel abroad at regular intervals at public expense. One of his last actions was to. approve the journey to South and East Asia I made over Christmas and in January, and on which I was due to embark only the day after that terrible Sunday afternoon at Portsea. When I did subsequently go abroad, it was made very apparent to me that Harold Holt had been incomparably the best known, the best liked Australian in all the Asian countries I visited. The regard in which he was held extended well beyond the heads of state and political leaders with whom he had been in closest contact. The genuine regret at his death went far beyond the natural sense of shock and horror at the manner of his death. Harold Holt possessed a very real presence in Asia. He made Australia better known in Asia and he made Australians more aware of Asia than ever before. This I believe was his most important contribution to our future which he made during his brief Prime Ministership.

I need not hide my sense of sadness that the last chapter of a fairly long and rewarding story of the relationship between myself and the late Prime Minister centered on an election campaign, which necessarily and properly accentuates the acerbities and emphasises the tensions in political life in this nation. A two weeks' campaign encapsules and therefore exaggerates the differences over issues which have really developed over months and years. We tend, as it were, to speak in headlines, with all their inadequacies and lack of subtlety. Nor need we deny the final period of his life was by no means the happiest in his political fortunes. The touch of success seemed to have deserted him. Whether this represented only a temporary phase or a permanent decline must remain one of the great unanswered questions of Australia's political history. The measure of political success which he had achieved was, of course, quite remarkable. He won for his Party the greatest election victory since federation and inflicted on my own the severest losses ever suffered by my Party or any Australian political party. He had achieved this even when his Party had been in office for 17 years under his remarkable predecessor. The very magnitude of his triumph in 1966 emphasised the suddenness and extent of the decline in his fortunes in the latter half of last year. So his life and his death take on a symbolic kind of grandeur. It has a message for us all about the impermanence of human beings and the instability of human affairs. Few men have seemed less likely to be cast in a great tragic role than our late colleague, but so it was to be.

I cannot close without a reference to his widow. She is the only wife of a Prime Minister who has become universally known to the entire nation by her first name. She enjoyed immensely being the wife of the Prime Minister of Australia, and Australia enjoyed seeing her enjoy it. She brought verve and colour to her role. Yet it is not her gaiety that will best and longest be remembered by the Australian people. They will remember her calm courage as she watched and waited on that dark shore at Portsea. Harold Holt has found no fixed physical resting place. His place in the political annals of our nation remains to be fixed by the perspective of history. But his place in the minds and memory of us, his colleagues, is secure, lasting and indelible.







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