Its time to remember Harold Holt for his achievements

Menzies Research Centre's picture
Picture credit: National Film and Sound Archives

Who should we blame for making impatient Australian radicals wait until December 1972 for their It’s Time moment?

By then the US Civil Rights movement was so old school it had been usurped by Black Power. The radicals at the barricades in Paris in 1967 were settling into a comfortable bourgeois professional existence. Harold Wilson - Britain’s Gough - had been an ex-prime minister for more than two years.

The significant role of Harold Holt in the conspiracy to frustrate an impatient generation -desperate for something new, but unclear exactly what it would look like - is only now being fully recognised.

The reforms he introduced in just 84 weeks in office were timely, innovative and politically courageous. Most have survived the test of time, and contributed greatly to modern Australia.

In a gracious speech to Parliament earlier this month, Bill Shorten acknowledged many of them, including Holt’s great achievement of dismantling the White Australia policy, a feat accomplished so deftly few recognised it was happening at the time.

Until recently, few in the Labor movement were prepared to deviate from the received wisdom that Gough Whitlam was entirely responsible for non-discriminatory migration.

The list of Holt’s achievements later appropriated by Whitlam and his worshipful admirers is long. They include the expansion of higher education - a task that began nine years before he became prime minister under his predecessor Bob Menzies. Holt, not Whitlam, established the Australian Council for the Arts, a moment of recognition that the Commonwealth’s responsibility for cultural investment should extend beyond the universities and the ABC .

In 1967, Australia’s trade and foreign policy tilt away from Britain and the United States was well underway thanks to Menzies, whose free-trade deal with Japan a decade earlier had been bitterly opposed by the union movement and its political arm, the Australian Labor Party.

Holt pushed further into Asia, deepening ties with nations outside the Commonwealth. It turns out he was not as wedded to US Foreign Policy as his opponents of claimed after all. He was criticised at home and abroad - notably in the United States - for encouraging trade with Red China, then in the grip of Mao Zedong’s barmy Cultural Revolution.

Five years later, his belief that economic ties were the first step towards global stability was finally recognised when President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China. Whitlam’s great discovery of the Middle Kingdom, we note, had to wait until 1973.

Returning these purloined achievements to their rightful owners is much more than a game of political point scoring or just another wearisome expedition in the history wars.

It matters because, if we are to learn from the great reformers, we need to understand the political philosophy that drove them.

Too often the cautious approach to reform, fixed in the DNA in Australian liberalism, is mistaken for reactionary intransigence.

It is made worse because radicals are notoriously skilled at framing their adversaries in poor light. The instinct to reform with broad consent, rather than to knock everything down and start again, is too easily portrayed as a the belligerent defence of the undependable.

Yet Holt, until the time of his death, remained true to the Liberal principles articulated brilliantly by his predecessor in the 1940s.

Menzies drew upon a rich tradition of classical liberalism, the provenance of which can be traced at least to the start of the Enlightenment in the late 18th Century, and possibly before.

Its unique properties are illustrated by the different responses by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine to the French Revolution. The anarchy and brutalism on the streets of Paris appeared not to trouble Paine, who wrote “we have it in our power to begin the world over again”.

Burke, however, was more circumspect, arguing that the goal of the reformer was not a new utopia, but to intelligently set about the task of making existing institutions less imperfect.

The spirit of Burke - respectful of tradition but not bound to it - infuses Australian liberalism, as an important book formally launched this week by Damian Freeman illustrates.

Holt’s untimely death invites counterfactual questions. If he had continued in office, would he have been able to satisfy the demands for change while keeping faith with Liberals?

Sooner or later, one suspects, the growing mood of urgency, enshrined in Donald Horne’s 1964 work The Lucky Country, would have burst through. “The demands of the age will destroy the present conventions - sometime,” wrote Horne. “It is time in Australia not for consideration of minor change, but for broad, general views of change.

In an era of similar cultural restlessness, the Liberal movement is again challenged by ever-less patient demands for change. Reinventing marriage is only the latest manifestation of the cultural rift that current leaders must straddle, a feat that appears to grow harder at each election.

A reconsideration of Holt’s legacy is timely. Holt was clearly better equipped than Menzies to reconcile publicly his instinctive Liberal belief in tradition and continuity with the need for his government to adapt to the reality of change in contemporary society.

He understood the principles of Liberalism no less clearly than Menzies, notably, its faith in the Deakinite Liberal tradition and opposition to doctrinaire socialism, together with an affirmation of the British Commonwealth and the American-Australian alliance. At the same time, however, he was conscious of the changing Zeitgeist at home and abroad.

“There has inevitably to be change in emphasis according to the needs of the times,” he said. “It is because of the very fact of our pledge to political liberty and individual freedom that we can absorb change and maintain our identity.”

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