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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, civics and citizenship, discrimination, identity, Indigenous Australia, politics, Prime Ministers, referendum, 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


Key history outcomes:

  • Citizenship: Preparing young Australians to be active and informed citizens
  • Identity: The diverse and multiple identities of a multicultural nation
  • Perspectives: The continent, the region and the world
  • Thinking and Linking: Connecting the past, present and future
  • Historical literacy: Essential and specific skills

This is an extract only. Go to The National Curriculum Statements for English
Teachers and students should consult their State’s curriculum and learning programs.

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


Harold Holt and the 1967 Referendum

One of the most significant acts of Harold Holt was to hold the 1967 Referendum.

  1. Interview people to see if they realize that Holt was the PM behind this significant event. Ask them who was Prime Minister then, or provide people with four alternative Prime Ministers’ names and see if they can identify that Holt was PM at the time.
  2. There are many inaccurate ideas in the community about what the 1967 referendum did and did not achieve. Interview people to find out if they reflect the myth or accurate knowledge about the significance of the referendum. You can ask them for their own explanation of what the referendum meant, or you can provide them with this set of alternative answers:
    The 1967 Referendum was significant because it:
    1. Gave Aboriginal people the vote
    2. Gave Aboriginal people equal rights
    3. Gave the Commonwealth power to make laws concerning Aboriginal people
    4. Gave the Commonwealth control over the lives of Aboriginal people
    5. Gave Aboriginal people full citizenship rights with other Australians
    6. Ended discriminatory laws against Aboriginal people.

(The correct answer is C.)

You can find out more about the referendum at the National Museum of Australia website

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia – Australian Prime Ministers

Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography

For more photographs, cartoons and other historical images of Harold Holt go to the National Library of Australia