Harold Edward Holt was born in Sydney in 1908 and educated at Melbourne University. He worked as a solicitor and entered the federal parliament in 1935 for the United Australia (later Liberal) Party.
He was minister of labour in 1940/1941 and again from 1949 to 1958, and federal treasurer from 1958 to 1966.
He was also minister for immigration between 1949 and 1956 during which time he made the first modifications to the White Australia Policy, relaxing some restrictions on Asian immigration.
In 1966 he succeeded Robert Menzies as Australian prime minister. His brief prime ministership was dominated by the Vietnam War, to which he committed increased Australian troops.
On Sunday 17 December 1967, Holt visited Cheviot Beach near Portsea (Victoria) with friends and his bodyguards.
He decided to go swimming, although the surf was heavy and Cheviot Beach was notorious for its strong currents and dangerous rip tides. Ignoring his friends’ pleas not to go in, Holt began swimming but soon disappeared from view.
His friends raised the alert and within a short time the sea off Cheviot Beach was being searched by a large contingent of police, Navy divers, Air Force helicopters, Army personnel and volunteers.
Despite the largest search operation in Australian history no trace of Holt was ever found.
Two days later the government made an official announcement that Holt was presumed dead.
The Governor-General Lord Casey sent for the Country Party leader and Coalition Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen, and he was sworn in as caretaker Prime Minister while the Liberals elected a new leader.
Many rumours have surrounded Holt’s death, including claims that he had committed suicide or faked his own death, and outlandish but persistent stories that he had been kidnapped by a Chinese submarine, or that he had been abducted by a UFO.
In 1983, British journalist Anthony Grey published a controversial book in which he claimed that Holt had been an agent for the People’s Republic of China and that he had been picked up by a Chinese submarine off Portsea and taken to China.
No official enquiry was conducted – on the grounds that it would have been a waste of time and money. Neither was an inquest held at the time.
But in 2003 the Victoria Police Missing Persons Unit formally reopened 161 pre-1985 cases in which drowning was suspected but no body was found.
On 2 September 2005, the Coroner’s finding was that Holt had drowned in accidental circumstances.