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Holgate, Harold Norman (Harry) (1933–1997)

by R. P. Davis

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Harold Norman Holgate (1933–1997), journalist and premier, was born on 5 December 1933 at West Maitland, New South Wales, elder son of Harold William Holgate, journalist, and his wife Aleen Margaret, née Norman, both New South Wales born. During World War II his father, an observer in the Royal Australian Air Force, went missing in operations over Germany, presumed dead. Harry attended Maitland Boys’ High School and was named the best all-round son of an ex-serviceman (1951). The next year he joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet. In the mid-1950s he transferred to the Melbourne Herald. He also worked in television and radio, and became a member of the Australian Labor Party. On 27 July 1957 at Holy Trinity Church, Kew, he married Katharine Ogilvie White, a university student—later a journalist and political commentator—and daughter of the librarian (Sir) Harold White; their union was short-lived.

By 1963 Holgate had moved to Tasmania, having been engaged by the Launceston Examiner as a political correspondent and deputy chief of staff. On 3 March that year he married Rosalind (Ros) Wesley. He then worked as publicity manager at the State Directorate of Industrial Development and Trade, and as an adviser to the deputy premier Roy Fagan. In 1970 he joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission as executive producer of the Tasmanian edition of the current affairs program This Day Tonight. He withdrew to contest the 1972 election for Labor, but failed to win a seat in the House of Assembly division of Bass. Returning to his ABC position, he was accused of partiality and damaging the credibility of the show. In 1973 he became press adviser to Lance Barnard, the deputy prime minister.

A recount in Bass in 1974, triggered by the resignation of Allan Foster, resulted in Holgate’s election. After nine months as a ‘pest on the back bench’ (Tas. HOA 1997, 21), he was elected speaker. His media skills helped him to win the sobriquet ‘Headline Harry,’ but he was also an effective debater and master of procedure. Alongside these duties, he studied at the University of Tasmania (BA, 1976). Returned at the 1976 election, he was elevated to the ministry together with Michael Polley. They became ‘the shark and the piranha,’ who together ‘wielded ruthless power’ (Prismall 1996, 16) in the Labor caucus. Holgate took on the housing and reconstruction portfolio, before being transferred (1977) to education, recreation, and the arts.  There he showed ‘considerable ability’ (Lowe 1984, 102), securing the relocation of part of the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education from Hobart to Launceston, despite strong opposition.

Ambitious and determined, Holgate narrowly lost the contest for the deputy leadership after Neill Batt’s retirement in 1980. In June the next year he unsuccessfully challenged Premier Douglas Lowe and in the ensuing reshuffle was demoted to the local government, environment, and water resources portfolio. It was a tumultuous period in which the Labor Party split over the Hydro-Electric Commission’s plans to flood the Franklin River. Most unions favoured the Gordon-below-Franklin dam, while Labor parliamentarians preferred the less destructive Gordon-above-Olga dam. With support for Lowe eroding, Holgate successfully challenged for the leadership on 11 November.

Although Holgate was now premier, his hold on power was weakened by the move of Lowe and Mary Willey (the former Labor whip) to the cross-bench, and the dispute over the construction of the dam remained unresolved. Already committed to holding a referendum on the issue, he refused to allow a ‘no dams’ option on the voting slip. While the Franklin easily defeated the Olga proposal, 45 per cent of the votes cast were informal, including 32 per cent asserting a ‘no dam’ preference. Lacking a clear direction, Holgate played for time and delayed the opening of parliament to 26 March 1982. On resumption a no-confidence motion was moved by the Australian Democrats member Norm Sanders against the Holgate government, its success assured by the backing of Lowe and Willey.

In the resultant election, Robin Gray’s pro-dam Liberals crushed Labor. Holgate relinquished the leadership to Ken Wriedt, a former Federal minister. He served as deputy leader until 1986 and then as chairman of the Parliamentary Labor Party caucus until 1989. In that year’s election Labor took office in an accord with five Green Independents. Holgate as leader of the House acted as the point of liaison with the Greens. He also held several portfolios including minister for tourism, sport, and recreation. By 1992, the Greens-Labor accord had broken down and he lost his seat in the ensuing election, rebuking his colleagues for their lack of sincerity in dealing with the Greens.

A larger-than-life figure, genial, urbane, and theatrical, Holgate had easily made friends on both sides of parliament. Away from politics he indulged his passion for horse racing and took on roles in tourism, including as a board member of the Tasmanian Travel and Information Centre, head of the Northern Gateway tourism group, and executive officer of the Tasmanian chapter of the Australian Tourism Industry Association. He was diagnosed with cancer in late 1996. Survived by his wife and their two daughters and two sons, he died on 16 March 1997 at Hillwood. He was accorded a State funeral at St John’s Anglican Church, Launceston, and was buried at Carr Villa Memorial Park.

Select Bibliography

  • Bennison, Peter. Speakers of the House of Assembly, Tasmania: 1856–2000. [Hobart]: [Parliament of Tasmania], 2001
  • Davis, Richard. A History of the Tasmanian Labor Party, 1902–2017. Sandy Bay, Tas.: Sassafras Books, 2017
  • De Cesare, Jodi. ‘Former Premier Holgate Dies at 63.’ Examiner (Launceston), 17 March 1997, 4
  • Lester, Michael. ‘Fifteen Years after the Coup Harry Talks about Power—and Dams.’ Mercury (Hobart), 29 November 1996, 19
  • Lowe, Doug. The Price of Power: The Politics behind the Tasmanian Dams Case. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1984
  • Prismall, Barry. ‘The Evolution of a Political Front Man.’ Examiner (Launceston), 30 November 1996, 16–17
  • Tasmania. House of Assembly. ‘Condolence—Death of Harold Norman Holgate.’ Hansard, 18 March 1997, 18–57
  • Voss, Fran. ‘Man of Passion Mourned.’ Examiner (Launceston), 21 March 1997, 14

Additional Resources

Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'Holgate, Harold Norman (Harry) (1933–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/holgate-harold-norman-harry-31651/text39128, accessed 27 May 2022.

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