Gorton reveals McMahon canvassed as HOLT search began

Prime Minister Harold Holt was distressed and may have been over-confident from the effects of ‘pep pills’ before entering the sea and going to his death in December 1967, according to taped statements released on January 1, 2010, from former Governor General, Sir Paul Hasluck.

Hasluck believed Holt’s distress was the result of the treachery of at least one of his colleagues - his old Liberal party nemesis, then Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister William McMahon, who Hasluck named as the key person plotting against Holt.

Hasluck at the time of Holt’s death was Minister for Foreign Affairs in his Holt’s Cabinet.

And in another set of tapes, also released by the National Library at the same time, former Prime Minister Sir John Gorton claimed that Billy McMahon, later prime minister and knighted, began canvassing succession soon after Holt was reporting missing in the surf off Cheviot Beach near Portsea in Victoria.

Hasluck’s and Gorton’s disclosures came when separately interviewed by oral historian and former Whitlam Government minister, Clyde Cameron, in 1985 for the National Library of Australia.

The participants agreed that their tapes would not be released until today to ensure that they would be deceased by the time the details were made public.Hasluck at the time of Holt’s death was Minister for Foreign Affairs in his Holt’s Cabinet.He told Cameron that McMahon had been working very actively against Holt for the promotion of himself:

“And it was distressing Harold very much. I don’t for a moment think that Harold deliberately entered the sea hoping it would be the end of it. I think the sea was great and that underwater exploration and fishing that he used to do was a great escape for him and something that allowed him to get away from it all when he was most troubled.

“My own idea – and it’s only a fancy – is that he may have been taking a pep pill or two, and was in a rather exhilarated mood and a confident mood and believed that he could handle the waves.

“And he just became over-confident, and entered a sea that he should not have entered. And probably entered with a feeling of joyousness – ‘Here at least is something with which I can battle, and overcome!’“You know, I think possibly he’d had a pep pill or something of the sort and was feeling confident and was happy once again to get into the waves… and not have that dirty little bastard McMahon on his mind."

Hasluck later explained that when he had mentioned ‘pep pills’ he wasn’t thinking of LSD or any sort of stimulant, he was just speculating.

“I found him a contemptible little creature..."

Hasluck said he could confess that a good deal of his own complete disenchantment with some elements in the Liberal Party was the fact that they could tolerate a man like William McMahon.

“I found him a contemptible little creature, a liar, a perpetual liar, and someone who was always lying to his own advantage, and a sneak and an unreliably treacherous fellow.”

Hasluck said that on one occasion after ministers gathered in Prime Minister Harold Holt’s office when there had been trouble between ministers, Holt asked him to stay on when the others left.

“And Harold was really in distress and he opened his heart a bit to me … I remember it very vividly. He said ‘You know Bob (previous Prime Minister Menzies) had the chance of dealing with the little bastard! But he’s left all the trouble to me.

”In his separate interview with Cameron recorded in 1985, Sir John Gorton, said that when Holt took to the surf and disappeared he was the only minister in Canberra. Gorton was Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister for Education and Science.

McMahon quick to canvass succession

Gorton said he was telephoned by an admiral “to be informed that Holt had fallen into the sea and was probably killed” and then “within half-an-hour McMahon rang me up and said “Look, we’ve got to think about the succession.

”Gorton indicated that he cut the ground from under his potential rival: “Yes. I said, ‘I’m not supporting you.’”

Cameron: “It was said by Menzies that he talked with McMahon and told him that common decency demanded he at least wait until it was known for sure that he (Holt) was missing and would not be coming back.

”Cameron asked Gorton, who went on to become the next Prime Minister after Holt, if he thought Holt had committed suicide.

Gorton: “I mean, you’ve got a heavy sea running, and a chap goes and dives into it. Now it may be that he just dived in because he had an exaggerated opinion of his own powers. It may be that he committed suicide. I just don’t know.”

Signed McMahon confession in safe

Hasluck said he knew that Harold Holt believed that Menzies had a signed confession in his safe which he ordered McMahon to sign agreeing that he had leaked information to the media in order to stymie Country Party leader John McEwen.

Hasluck over the years had made no secret of the fact that he believed McMahon cost him the Prime Ministership at the time John Gorton was elected by the party to replace Harold Holt.

Hasluck told Clyde Cameron in 1985 that even before Harold Holt disappeared, John Gorton had plans in the back of his head:

“Well you see, I was certainly unaware of it at the time and had no conception that anyone was actively moving against Harold. But from subsequent events I would now be prepared to believe that Gorton had been laying his plans before Harold Holt’s disappearance…

“What I was aware of (is that) Harold was a very troubled man, a very troubled man. And the cause of his trouble was… mainly I think his concern with the behaviour of McMahon…that McMahon was working very actively against Holt for the promotion of himself.”


Prime Minister Harold Holt with relatives at Portsea, Victoria.

Prime Minister Harold Holt.

Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck swears in William McMahon and his cabinet on March 24, 1971.

Searchers along the Portsea coast in December 1967 after Harold Holt went missing.

Sir Paul Hasluck.