Police take last look at mystery of missing PM
Australia to close the book on its vanished leader - and scores of conspiracy theories
David Fickling in Sydney
Tuesday August 26, 2003
Australian police are expected to reopen the investigation into one of the country's most enduring political mysteries - the disappearance of the prime minister Harold Holt in 1967.
Holt went missing after going swimming at Cheviot Beach, near his holiday home at Portsea on the coast of Victoria, eight days before Christmas 1967.
Thousands scoured the coast during the ensuing three-week search, and police consulted clairvoyants and cut open a shark in an attempt to find some trace of him, but not so much as a shred of clothing has ever been found.
Holt's disappearance has long been seen as Australia's answer to the Kennedy assassination, spawning almost as many conspiracy theories, but the reason for the impending reopening of the investigation is more mundane.
Under the law at the time of Holt's disappearance on December 17 1967, an inquest could not be held without a body. This rule has now changed, allowing the Victoria state coroner to investigate. Police have handed over a list of 161 suspected drownings and other deaths from 1961-85 in which the bodies were never found; the list includes Holt.
The case is likely to be reopened early next year by the Victoria coroners. The coronial registrar, Rick Roberts, said: "Technically it's still an open file, and this will be closure for it in a legal sense."
But the Victoria state police minister, Andre Haermeyer, warned against wasting police money on the case.
There are many wild theories over what could have happened to Holt. One holds that he swam around a headland to be spirited away by a lover, and lived the rest of his life in the south of France before dying of a heart attack in the early 80s. Another theory had him in exile in Brazil.
The more unlikely theories put him at the centre of murky cold war geopolitical battles. Holt's brief administration from 1966 to 1967 may have given citizenship to Aborigines and abandoned the racist white Australia policy, but it was also characterised by a stolid conservatism.
One theory suggested that after dramatically increasing Australian involvement in the Vietnam war, Holt was assassinated by the CIA when he changed his mind on the issue. Most outlandish of all were the claims made by the British author Anthony Grey, who said Holt had been spying for Beijing and was picked up offshore by a Chinese midget submarine.
Australians were initially incredulous that a man widely held to be a magnificent swimmer could drown on a calm summer's day, off a beach just a short drive from his holiday home.
Holt had cultivated a heroic public image, which led to one British newspaper dubbing him the "007 prime minister" after printing a photograph of him in a wetsuit. His last words before wading into the water were typically confident: "I know this beach like the back of my hand."
But the people with him that day said Holt, 59, was no longer the powerhouse he had once been. He suffered from a bad shoulder and had nearly drowned on Cheviot Beach seven months earlier, while snorkelling with friends.
The waters of the Bass strait are famously treacherous, and on the day of Holt's disappearance younger swimmers had turned back because of the powerful undertow and five-metre (16ft) waves.
Suspicions of a cover-up were stoked because of government claims that only one other person had been with Holt at the beach when he disappeared, when in fact there were five, including his lover, Marjorie Gillespie, whose presence the government was keen to keep quiet.
Inspector Lawrence Newell, who led the investigation into Holt's disappearance in 1967, always maintained that accident remained the most likely explanation.
"I think he fell for his own publicity," he told the Melbourne Age in 1992. "He believed he couldn't drown."