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Holt, Robert Wilfred (Bob) (1913–1985)

by Robert Murray

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Robert Wilfred (Bob) Holt (1913-1985), politician and solicitor, was born on 9 June 1913 at Launceston, Tasmania, third child of Wilfred John Holt, Presbyterian clergyman, and his wife Lilian Ann Janet, née Parkhill, both New South Wales born. Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (LL B, 1940), he represented Australia in Rugby Union football.

Mobilised in the Militia as a lieutenant on 3 January 1941, Holt transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 21 February and was allotted to the 8th Armoured Regiment. At Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, on 4 March 1942 he married with Anglican rites Norma Rose Edwards, a nurse; they were to have four children before being divorced. Promoted to temporary captain in April (substantive in September), he was posted to headquarters, 1st Armoured Division. He performed staff duties at headquarters, New Guinea Force, and at Land Headquarters, Melbourne, and was promoted to temporary major in October 1944. On 17 May 1945 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He was admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 1 April 1946. He practised at Portland, and later at Preston and Ringwood.

Having joined the Australian Labor Party in 1942, Holt was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly for Portland in 1945. He lost the seat in 1947, but won it back in 1950. Regarded as a protégé of the State ALP secretary Patrick Kennelly, he was embroiled from the start in the developing factionalism. In December 1952 he became commissioner of crown lands and survey, minister of soldier settlement and for conservation, and president of the Board of Land and Works in John Cain’s Labor government, but in December next year on the floor of the assembly he tore up a land settlement amendment bill that he was handling, walked out and resigned from cabinet. He later claimed that B. A. Santamaria, the leader of the Catholic Social Studies Movement and the National Catholic Rural Movement, had used unreasonable pressure to have the government accept as part of the bill a proposal for the rural movement to use crown land in Gippsland for an Italian farming settlement; Santamaria denied this accusation.

Holt’s seat was abolished in 1955 following a redistribution. Promoted as a man of principle and courage by the new left-wing controllers of the Victorian ALP branch after the split, he was endorsed for the safe Labor Federal seat of Darebin, which he held from 1955 to 1958, when he resigned due to ill health. He was elected State president of the party in 1962. Critics perceived him as a moderate, respectable face for an authoritarian, electorally ineffectual left-wing union machine in which the Communist Party of Australia had significant influence. His behaviour gave him a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for being anti-Catholic.

Influenced by criticism of the Victorian branch and its poor electoral performance, Holt attacked the State executive and lost the presidency in 1965. He resigned from the ALP in 1973, citing inappropriate union control, and told the press that he would vote Liberal and might join the Australia Party. Active in the Victorian National Parks Association, he was also president (1973-74) of the Victorian Animal Aid Trust. In a civil ceremony on 16 December 1976 at Olinda he married Barbara Ann Rothque, née Quittenton, a widow. An ambitious, energetic, well-intentioned professional man attracted to public life, Bob Holt lacked the guile and emotional balance required for the exceptional complexities of the politics of his time. Survived by his wife, and by the two sons and two daughters of his first marriage, he died on 26 April 1985 at Montrose and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (1970)
  • K. White, John Cain & Victorian Labor 1917-1957 (1982)
  • Canberra Times, 29 July 1965, p 3
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8 May 1973, p 13
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 May 1973, p 1, 1 May 1985, p 18
  • series B884, item V62288, and series B883, item VX39826 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'Holt, Robert Wilfred (Bob) (1913–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/holt-robert-wilfred-bob-12651/text22797, accessed 25 September 2017.

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