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Harold Holt’s Briefcase

Video clip synopsis – The disappearance of our seventeenth Prime Minister, Harold Holt, during a beach holiday sparked countless conspiracy theories. The items left in his briefcase are a significant time capsule of his last days as Prime Minister.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 5min 30sec
Tags - Australian History, biography, commemoration, identity, language, media, media and society, media influence, Prime Ministers, reporting, representations, see all tags


Harold Holt’s Briefcase

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About the Video Clip


Harold Holt’s Briefcase is an episode from the series The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures, produced in 2007.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures
Award winning cartoonist and yarn spinner, Warren Brown, reveals the emotional lives of Australian Prime Ministers through 10 objects they used every day or even adored – from Robert Menzies’ home movie camera, to Joseph Lyons’ love letters, Harold Holt’s briefcase and Ben Chifley’s pipe. These treasures reveal the nation’s leaders, as you have never seen them before.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures is a Film Australia National Interest Program produced in association with Old Parliament House and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Curriculum Focus


Writing Standards
At Level 6, students write sustained and cohesive narratives that experiment with different techniques and show attention to chronology, characterisation, consistent point of view and development of a resolution. They write persuasive texts dealing with complex ideas and issues and control the linguistic structures and features that support the presentation of different perspectives on complex themes and issues. They select subject matter and begin to use a range of language techniques to try to position readers to accept particular views of people, characters, events, ideas and information.

This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information


The disappearance of our seventeenth Prime Minister, Harold Holt, at Cheviot Beach in 1967 during a beach holiday sparked countless conspiracy theories and ultimately overshadowed his political accomplishments.

At the height of the Cold War, with the Vietnam War escalating, Holt moved Australia’s focus away from Britain and more towards America — substantially increasing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. His impromptu speech on the White House lawn declaring himself ‘All the way with LBJ’ indicated his support for US President Johnson.

Holt’s prime ministership represented a major social shift from the tradition and conservatism of the Menzies era, to that of the ‘swinging sixties’. One of the hardest working of Australia’s Cabinet ministers, after 32 years as a parliamentarian, Harold Holt reached the prime ministerial office in 1966.

Holt’s first prime ministerial statement announced the relaxation of restrictions that had blocked the entry of non-European migrants for 65 years. The Migration Act 1966 increased access to migrants other than those from Europe, including refugees fleeing Vietnam. This was the beginning of the dismantling of the 'White Australia’ Policy. In 1966 he brought in Australia’s conversion to decimal currency. The following year on 27 May 1967 Australians overwhelmingly answered ‘yes’ to removing the discriminatory clause in Australia’s Constitution under which Aboriginal people were not counted in the census, and in changing the Constitution so that the Commonwealth parliament was empowered to legislate for Indigenous people.

Holt also brought Australia into the ‘space race’ with the construction of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, and the joint US-Australian communications station at North West Cape, Western Australia.

In September 2005, the Victorian State Coroner found that Holt had drowned while swimming. The Coroner had previously been unable to investigate a death where a body was never found. Harold Holt was the third prime minister to die in office after Joe Lyons (1939) and John Curtin (1945).

The items left in Holt’s briefcase are a significant time capsule of his last days as Prime Minister: a pair of socks, theatre tickets, his tax returns and a couple of combs.

Harold Holt (1908 – 1967) was Prime Minister of Australia from January 1966 to December 1967. Harold Holt’s briefcase is held at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.

Classroom Activities


1. Writing a biography

One form of communication about a Prime Minister can be through a biography.

A biography of a Prime Minister should tell us about:

  • The person’s background
  • His life before politics — and how that shaped his later life
  • Why the person entered politics
  • How the person became Prime Minister
  • What the person achieved, and failed to achieve, as Prime Minister
  • The influence of others on him in the role
  • His life after the Prime Ministership
  • An assessment or evaluation of the impact of the role on him, and his impact on the nation.

You should research these aspects, and then use the object as a way of focusing on or introducing your biographical story to your readers.

Your presentation can be as:

  • A journalistic article
  • An imaginary memoir
  • A formal biographical article
  • A PowerPoint-supported oral presentation
  • A debate (e.g. that Prime Minister X contributed more to Australia than Prime Minister Y)
  • Or some other format.

2. Creating a newspaper or TV report

Imagine that it is December 1967 and you are a reporter who has rushed to Cheviot Beach to report on the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt.

  • Who do you speak to and quote in your report?
  • How much information do you give about the time, the place, the weather?
  • You learn that Holt was at the beach with a woman with whom he was having an affair — do you report this?
  • How do you get across the importance of the event?
  • How do you convey the drama of the event?

Prepare your newspaper or TV report.

3. Creating an anniversary newspaper or TV report

Imagine that it is now an anniversary of the event and you are preparing a newspaper or TV report on this historic event.

  • What do you include in your summary?
  • How do you evaluate the significance of the event in Australian history?
  • How do you assess the ‘what might have beens’ of this event?

Prepare your anniversary report.

Compare and contrast the two approaches and styles of your reports.

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia – Australian Prime Ministers
Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography