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How an Australian Prime Minister disappeared without a trace?

Australia has something of a reputation for electing interesting Prime Ministers, both in the, “toast on the highway,” and the, “burning building,” sense of the word. On the toast side, the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was once a child actor who appeared in TV commercials.

How an Australian Prime Minister disappeared without a trace
How an Australian Prime Minister disappeared without a trace

In addition, Bob Hawke, who served as Australia’s Prime Minister from 1983-1991, once held the Guinness world record for beer chugging, guzzling down 2.5 pints of ale in 11 seconds, but perhaps no Prime Minister is more interesting than Harold Holt—a member of the Labor Party who served as Prime Minister from January of 1966 until December of 1967.

Unlike most Prime Ministers, though, he didn’t stop serving because he lost an election or resigned. He stopped serving because he just got lost… and nobody ever found him. So what happened to Harold Holt? Well, nobody really knows—like I said, no one ever found him—but we do know what happened before he disappeared.

On December 17, 1967, the day of his disappearance, Harold Holt was vacationing near Portsea, Victoria. Around 11:15 am, he and four of his friends drove to Point Nepean, and then on the way back, Holt said they should stop and swim at Cheviot Beach. Holt and another member of the group started swimming around 12:15 pm.

According to his friends, Holt was seen going out into deeper and deeper water, and then, all of a sudden, just like that 2.5 pints of ale Bob Hawke drank, Holt was gone. So you might be thinking, “well he didn’t disappear, he drowned,” and while most people do agree that’s the most likely explanation, it’s impossible to say for sure because his body was never found. And it’s not like nobody looked.

They hadn’t lost some chapstick—they lost the Prime Minister, so after Holt disappeared, the government put together an enormous search party, which is a lot less fun than it sounds. At one point, there were 50 divers simultaneously searching for Holt, and the total search party included 340 people, but despite five days of looking, nobody managed to find Holt’s body.

Plus, and not to get all conspiracy theory on you, but it seems a bit odd that Holt would just randomly drown, because he was an unusually proficient swimmer. Holt used to spend hours spearfishing and snorkeling year round, and would even amuse himself during long parliamentary debates by seeing how long he could hold his breath which really says something about parliament—that suffocating yourself is more fun than listening to debate.

The most likely explanation seems to be that Holt did drown because he got caught in a rip current—a strong, fast, narrow current of water going away from the shore. But, of course, not everybody is convinced by the easy explanation, and so, for years, Harold Holt’s disappearance has been the subject of conspiracy theories.

One theory claims that Harold Holt was actually a lifelong spy for the Chinese government, and that on that fateful day he was picked up by a Chinese submarine to live out the rest of his days in Beijing.

In fact, former Reuter’s journalist Anthony Grey actually wrote a book titled The Prime Minister was a Spy where he argued just that, based on interviews he claimed to have had with “several different Chinese government officials.” But the book was largely laughed off when it came out, and has been shown to contain a ton of errors. In response to the book, Holt’s widow was quoted as saying, “he didn’t even like Chinese food,” which frankly makes me more suspicious that something fishy was going on because, like….who doesn’t love some Kung Pao chicken? Traitors, probably.

One other theory claims that the CIA assassinated Holt because the US thought that he would pull Australia out of the Vietnam war and another claims that Holt faked his own death so he could move to Switzerland with his lover which on the one hand, is interesting, but on the other hand, seems like a lot more work than just like… divorce, because also, if you get divorced, you can keep being Prime Minister.

But hey, maybe he just really didn’t want to deal with the paperwork. Another reason the conspiracy theories seem implausible is that Harold Holt’s drowning was kind of a long time coming. He had actually come close to drowning only seven months earlier, during a swim at Cheviot Beach, and had been warned for years that his swimming habits might be dangerous, but Holt never seemed worried.

One time his press secretary, Tony Eggleton, presumed father of egg boy, expressed concern about Holt’s long swims, and the Prime Minister responded, “look Tony, what are the odds of a prime minister being drowned?” Turns out… pretty high. One of the headlines in The Australian the morning before Holt’s death actually read, “PM Advised to Swim Less.”

So yeah…I’m not saying he had it coming, I’m just saying…it’s not exactly a shock. You also might be wondering, “what happens when the prime minister disappears? How do they decide when someone else becomes prime minister? What if it turns out he was just taking a really long bathroom break, and then he comes back out and somebody took his job?”

How do they decide when someone else becomes prime minister
How do they decide when someone else becomes prime minister

The answer is a legal process called “death in absentia,” where, despite direct proof of death, someone is declared legally dead if they go missing for an extended period of time, or when there is reason to believe that they are dead—like if someone is in a plane crash, or, yes, if someone is seen disappearing into the ocean.

After five days of searching, Holt was declared dead in absentia, a memorial was held, and, after some infighting, Education Minister John Gorton succeeded Holt as Prime Minister. The disappearance of Harold Holt was, of course, a tragedy. Memorials were placed at the beach, the US named a warship after him, and Australia even decided to name a very special building in honor of their likely-drowned prime minister—The Harold Holt Swim Center.

Alright, so you all know what’s coming. If you become Australian prime minister, you clearly need to learn how to effectively swiii… lead a group—yeah, like, a big group. Part of that involves communicating your ideas effectively—a fantastically important skill that can truly make or break a political career. This, though, is just one of tens of thousands of skills that Skillshare teaches.

Their, “Storytelling for Leaders,” course is taught by Keith Yamashita, a leadership constant who has helped hone the skills of top brass at Apple, GE, Nike, IBM, and more.

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Credit: Half as Interesting

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