July 20, 2006 | Jeff Wall

The last successful prime ministerial transition

Observing the shambolic, some would say comical, efforts by the parliamentary, and media, supporters of Peter Costello to extricate John Howard from the Prime Ministership took my mind back to the last genuinely successful transition of Prime Ministers during the term of a Government in Australia.
Exactly forty years and six months ago, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, ended his seventeen year unbroken term as Prime Minister, and was succeeded by his long serving heir apparent, Harold Edward Holt.
Holt had served as a Minister in the Menzies Government since it was first elected in 1949, as Treasurer from 1958, and Deputy Liberal Leader from 1956. He had earlier served in the Menzies and Fadden Governments, 1940-41.
The circumstances surrounding the Menzies retirement and Holt’s succession are set out in Bishop Tom Frame’s excellent biography on Harold Holt titled “The Life and Death of Harold Holt”.
Reports that Menzies would retire had appeared on a regular basis since the mid-1950’s. From the time of his election as Deputy Liberal Leader in 1956, it had been assumed that Holt would be his successor.
By late 1965 there was still no evidence, let alone certainty, that Menzies would retire before the election due at the end of 1966 even though speculation in the media had been more frequent than usual.
The first Cabinet meeting of 1966 was held in Canberra on 19 January. By lunch time Menzies had given no indication whatsoever about his future, and Frame reports that there was a sense of despondency around the Cabinet table and that “Holt had his head slumped almost on his chest in despair”.
But at the end of the meeting Menzies simply said – “Well, gentlemen, this is the last time I will be with you.” And that was pretty well the end of a record seventeen year Prime Ministership, and a party leadership that extended right back to the 1930’s. Neither record will ever be broken.
The next day the Liberal Party Room elected Holt unopposed as Leader and Prime Minister designate. He was 58 – only Chifley and McMahon assumed the office at an older age. And he had been an MP for 30 years, 9 months and 5 days….and a Minister for just over 18 years when he was sworn in as Prime Minister.
It had long been assumed that Menzies wanted Holt to succeed him, but he never indicated so publicly. Menzies had “offloaded” a few potential successors who he did not favour by making them High Commissioners and Ambassadors, and he gave Holt a very influential role in his Government from the mid 1950’s.
And even though Menzies was, and remains, the most powerful and influential leader in the history of the Liberal Party and its predecessors, he was not able to secure the election of his favoured candidate, Paul Hasluck, as Deputy Leader on his retirement. The position was won by Billy McMahon who Menzies barely tolerated.
How different that history is to recent events? Holt never once tried to prod Menzies into retirement. He never claimed that it was “his turn”………though it is arguable that he had been the logical and expected successor since the early 1950’s.
The only similarity is that the current, and probably somewhat diminished, pretender, holds the seat of Higgins – the seat Harold Holt had held for 30 years 9 months and 5 days the day he was sworn is as Prime Minister!

Posted by Jeff Wall at 9:40 am | Comments Off on The last successful prime ministerial transition |
Filed under: Australian Politics

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