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Australia reopens mystery of missing PM

by Belinda Goldsmith, Reuters, 25 August 2003


CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia will revisit its oldest political mystery with a coroner's inquiry into the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt, who went swimming nearly 36 years ago and was never seen again.

The conservative politician's disappearance at a south coast beach became Australia's whodunnit equivalent to the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

Among the most spectacular conspiracy theories advanced over the years was the suggestion Holt, 59, was spying for China and was whisked away by frogmen to a waiting submarine. Other theories suggested it was a planned suicide or a shark attack.

The reason for the new inquiry is much 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 changed, allowing the Victoria state coroner to investigate.

Police have now handed Victorian coroner Graeme Johnstone a list of over 100 suspected drownings from 1961-1985 where the bodies were never found, which includes Holt.

"We don't have any new evidence and it's really a formality to finally declare him dead," said a police spokeswoman.


On the day he disappeared, Holt, who had been in power since January 1966, drove to the coast with four friends to watch solo around-the-world sailor Alec Rose sail into Port Phillip Bay.

They then went for a swim at Cheviot Beach, an ocean beach exposed to the rough Bass Strait around 80 km (50 miles) south of Melbourne. Holt, a keen snorkeller, set off out to sea, swam into turbulence and was never seen again.

The police said they believed Holt had been swept out to sea and drowned but the failure to find his body despite a three-week search fuelled conspiracy theories.

The Chinese submarine theory, advanced in a 1983 book by British author Anthony Grey, said Holt engineered his disappearance because Australian intelligence agencies were about to uncover his spying activities. The government's Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has denied this.

Others speculated Holt orchestrated his disappearance and slipped away with a lover to the south of France or that he was assassinated by the CIA because he wanted to pull Australian troops out of Vietnam.

Copyright © 2003 Knight Ridder Newspapers
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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