It’s exactly 50 years since the disappearance of PM Harold Holt

It's exactly 50 years since Harold Holt disappeared. Source: Getty.

It was one of the biggest mysteries in Australian political history. 

And today, tributes are being paid once again to former Prime Minister Harold Holt, exactly 50 years after he disappeared and was presumed drowned.

Holt became PM in January 1966, and served just under two years in office, before he mysteriously disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach, Victoria, during what were reported at the time as rough conditions. 

His body was never recovered, and he was declared dead some time later.

The father-of-three’s disappearance sparked a series of conspiracy theories on what might have happened, ranging from kidnapping right through to suicide.

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However, Holt’s former press secretary Tony Eggleton always maintained it was a tragic accident.

“Basically, I think that people just find it very hard to accept that a prime minister can go for a swim on a Sunday afternoon, like anyone else, and end up misjudging the situation and drowning,” he told the ABC News in 2007.

“But that’s what happened.”

Holt disappeared while swimming. Source: Getty.

Holt was survived by his wife Zara and her three children from a previous marriage – who Holt legally adopted after their marriage.

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It was widely claimed at the time that their two twins were Holt’s biological children, but it was never confirmed.

After her husband’s death, Zara remarried in 1969 to one of his Liberal Party colleagues, Jeff Bate. She was widowed a second time in 1984, and sadly died in 1989.

According to the Herald Sun, Holt spent the hours before he disappeared with his then-three-year-old granddaughter Sophie.

“The ‘old man’ came back beaming and said ‘I’ve made a new friend here’!” Holt’s stepson Nicky previously recalled to the site.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech in parliament this week, commemorating the anniversary.

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“Now as we near the 50th anniversary of his untimely death we acknowledge the prime minister and the man, the profound impact that he made as a parliamentarian and leader of our nation,” he said, according to news.com.au.

“He ushered in many of the reforms that we now consider so crucial, such watersheds in our evolution to the modern nation that we are today.”

Meanwhile opposition leader Bill Shorten said he believes Holt is unfairly remembered for his disappearance, instead of his successful career and the legacy he left behind.

Holt famously oversaw the breakdown of the White Australia policy, while The Migration Act 1966 established legal equality between British, European and non-European migrants to Australia.

He also led the famous referendum to ensure Aboriginal people were included in the census, as well as introducing dollar currency.

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“Without doubt, the 1967 Referendum stands as Harold Holt Holt’s tallest monument,” Mr Shorten added.

“He actively and passionately campaigned to strike from our constitution the discrimination, which meant that Aboriginal people could fight and die for our nation and yet not be counted in the census.”

Do you remember hearing the news at the time? What do you think happened to the former Prime Minister?