History has not been kind to Harold Holt. As historian Tom Frame put it in The life and death of Harold Holt, the death of the nation’s 17th prime minister overshadowed his life. It continues to do so, especially in the matter of the Holt cultural legacy. Decisions made by Holt as PM, would, in time, radically change the relationship between Australian governments, state and Commonwealth, and the arts.
In Holt’s day the connections between the arts and the public purse were slender. The Commonwealth Literary Fund had existed since 1908, as an emergency fund for impoverished writers but, more influential, was the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.
In 1953, H C (Nugget) Coombs, as Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, an institution that was slowly gathering an art collection, enlisted Menzies’ support for the creation of an institution to support the cultural sector. It would be called the Australia Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Prime Minister Robert Menzies, an ardent royalist with a particular regard for the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth, embraced the idea and appointed Coombs himself as chairman. The Trust was instrumental in the establishment of ‘the Australian Opera, the Australian Ballet, two orchestras and seven drama companies and in conjunction with the ABC and the University of NSW, the National Institute of Dramatic Art. The trust received some direct government support but offered tax deductibility to generous benefactors.
On other fronts, public patronage of the cultural sector was uncommon and piecemeal. Things were to change. Holt came to office in 1967 as Menzies’ chosen successor, with a lot of political capital. He spent some on cultural initiatives.
The Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers fund was established modelled on the Commonwealth Literary Fund. Perhaps at Coombs’ urging, Holt then proposed the amalgamation and enlargement of all programs of Commonwealth fiscal support for the sector in a new body, the Australian Council for the Arts.
It was to provide a single source of advice on the arts for the Commonwealth government and be the only conduit of Commonwealth fiscal assistance. The proposition amounted to a centralisation of cultural power worthy of a Labor administration.
Harold Holt had a particular love of ballet and was at one time, secretary of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association.
The decision was announced on November 1, 1967. Holt told parliament that increased ‘Government financial assistance for the “theatre Arts—drama, opera and ballet, and film making for television with an educational and cultural emphasis” would be channelled through the new Council for the Arts’.
Unlike his predecessor, Menzies, Holt did not have a ‘doctrinal dislike for government support for the Arts’, as Coombs put it. He went on: Holt’s father, T. J. Holt, had been ‘an eminent Australian entrepreneur who had been involved inter alia in some of [Dame Nellie] Melba’s concerts and opera seasons’. His son had a particular love of ballet and, according to the Australian Trade Union Archives, was at one time, secretary of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association.
However, Holt’s unexpected disappearance on December 17, 1967 while swimming at Cheviot Beach, Portsea, meant that it was the following June before his successor, John Gorton, appointed the Council’s first members. The chairman was, again, H. C. Coombs.
While Holt had apparently limited the brief of the new Australian Council for the Arts to ‘filmmaking for television with an educational and cultural emphasis’, he told parliament:
The inclusion of filmmaking for television in the activities to be covered by the new Council is not a substitute for full consideration by the Government of the submissions it has received for the establishment of a Film Corporation to assist the film industry at large. The intention to give further aid to filmmaking for television is part of the Government’s continuing effort to help in increasing the Australian content of television programs in this country. The question of a Film Corporation, or some similar organisation, is a separate proposition which needs further study.
Despite an inclination ‘to exaggerate his indifference to the Arts and to assert his personal preference for the vulgarly popular’, Holt’s successor, John Gorton, had a few cultural bones in his body too.
And further study it got. In May 1969, the Council’s Film Committee’s recommendations were made public. It ‘recommend[ed] that a three-level plan be immediately implemented, made up of:
- A National Film and Television School.
- An Australian Film and Television Development Corporation with responsibility for the administration of a film and television fund and an overseas film and television marketing board.
- An Experimental Film and Television Fund for low budget productions and a television outlet for experimental films and programmes.
Gorton accepted the recommendations and made provisions for them in the budget of August1969. Gorton, too, had a few cultural bones in his body, it seems. Despite an inclination ‘to exaggerate his indifference to the Arts and to assert his personal preference for the vulgarly popular’, he had graduated from Oxford in 1935 with a Master of Arts, majoring in history, economics and political science and, according to biographer Alan Trengove, harboured an ambition to be a writer. But then World War II, family obligations and politics intervened.
The second and third recommendations, the establishment of the Australian Film Development Corporation, and the Experimental Film and Television Fund, were also acted upon promptly though cautiously.
After the election of the Whitlam Labor government in December 1972, all Commonwealth interests in the arts, except for the ABC and its state orchestras and the National Film Board and its Commonwealth Film Unit, were merged under an enlarged and restructured council with art form-specific boards of artists, and renamed the Australia Council; it achieved relative independence as a statutory authority in 1975.
While Gough Whitlam and, to a lesser extent John Gorton, are remember for their cultural legacy, Holt had earlier sensed the rising wave of Australian cultural nationalism of the 1960s and was determined that his government would ride that wave to a political destiny. Instead, on that fateful day in December 1967, he rode a wave to another destiny.