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Sir Henry Edward Bolte (1908–1990)

When he came to power, many people expected Sir Henry Bolte to be a "stop-gap" Premier of Victoria, but he stayed put for 17 years. Nothing in his background had suggested he would be capable of dominating his party as Premier from 1955 until retirement in 1972.

But Sir Henry, shrewd and industrious, was the man for the times. In the 10 years before 1955, Victoria had 10 governments. Sir Henry brought to the state a political stability which had been sadly lacking.

He was brusque, yet genial, a working farmer and indefatigable promoter of his state. Supporters saw him as a benevolent father-figure; more than a Premier, the personification of the state.

When he retired in August, 1972, at the age of 63, he could fairly claim the lion's share of credit for keeping the Liberal Government in office for 17 years.

With the possible exception of South Australia's Sir Thomas Playford, he was the most astute and tenacious of the postwar state political leaders.

His firm, outspoken administration of the state generated antagonism and frequent controversy.

Sir Henry was undoubtedly the only political leader ever attacked in Latin etched on a stained-glass window in a church. The cause was his refusal to grant clemency to a condemned murderer — which led demonstrators to call him "Hanging Henry".

His attitudes had a simplistic Old Testament touch. The sight of topless waitresses in California offended him, and he declared poker machines had weakened the moral fibre of people in New South Wales.

He was anathema to most intellectuals. One described him as "an earnest comic". But he was deeply proud of his state's solidity. In an article for the Melbourne Herald in July, 1970, he wrote that Victoria enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in Australia, the highest job opportunities, the highest bank savings and the highest home ownership.

When he came to power in 1955 he was regarded as a "babe in the woods" who would soon be succeeded by somebody more astute. The predictions proved well wide of the mark.

Bolte succeeded precisely because he disregarded intrigue and went ahead with the job of governing. Parties on both sides of Parliament were split into factions which spent more time trying to outwit one another than in attending to parliamentary business. If electors were still capable of being surprised at all, they must have been surprised when the election of 1955 — caused by the ALP-DLP split which wrecked the Cain Government — gave them the relatively unknown Bolte as Premier.

In the previous Parliament he had led the tiny Liberal and Country Party. He was selected, as leader because the only other possibility, A.G. (later Sir Arthur) Rylah, was a Melbourne solicitor, and a country man was needed to appeal to the country voter. Bolte and Rylah were close friends and remained so during the fruitful years which followed.

It was said Bolte rose to the top of his party fortuitously, and that his party came to power fortuitously. Some called him "Lucky" Bolte because he grew up on the land and owned a 405 ha property named Kialla, near Meredith, 113km from Melbourne.

The place carried 600 sheep and yielded 16 bales of wool when he bought it in 1935. He built the figures up to 3000 sheep and 81 bales in 20 years.

He was born on his parents' farm at Skipton on May 20, 1908, and educated at the local state school and Ballarat Grammar. To gain experience he worked for other farmers before buying his own property. He served as a gunner in the AIF during World War II and had no notion of entering politics when discharged.

While golfing with friends one Saturday talk turned to politics and the apparent lack of talent in Parliament. He agreed to stand for the Legislative Assembly seat of Hampden at the 1945 election. He was beaten, but won the seat two years later when the Chifley Government's banking legislation doomed the Cain Labor Government in Victoria.

Within a year he became a minister in the Hollway Government. Non Labor parties at that time were divided by intrigue. With Labor back in power, Hollway lost the leadership to city man L. G. Norman and it was thought his deputy should be a country man. Bolte got the job.

Norman lost his seat in 1952. The leadership went to Trevor Oldham, who was killed in the following year in an air crash. Bolte became leader.

It seemed no great triumph at the time. There were only 11 Liberals in the 65-member House. But in 1955 the Labor Party was hopelessly split. The Liberals rode to power in Victoria, and after less than eight years in Parliament Bolte found himself Premier.

He was only 47. Most attributed his rise to power to the Labor split. But Sir Henry and his deputy Sir Arthur Rylah had planned for two years to gain office.

The wise predicted a short political life for him and Labor was delighted to have this seeming political simpleton in power. They were all rapidly disillusioned.

Sir Henry held the odd notion that in doing what was best for the state he was also doing what was best for his party. To the surprise of many, he turned out to be right.

People who met him during this period saw an athletic-looking man with clear, friendly blue eyes and an easy manner. Reporters found him the most refreshing Premier in their experience. They liked him so much that when he left for abroad in 1956 "to sell Victoria to the Americans" they presented him with a pig-skin cigarette case.

This idea of "selling Victoria" became one of the most important policies. Its effect was felt not only in Victoria but in most states.

From 1956 on he often went abroad, particularly to the United States and Canada, where he talked to businessmen, industrialists and other potential investors. He established special Victorian agencies in New York, San Francisco and London and created a division of state development.

Infected by his enthusiasm Melbourne businessmen formed a "Victoria Promotion Committee" which issued monthly newsletters to US and English companies pointing out investment opportunities in Victoria. In some influential quarters abroad it began to appear that Victoria and Australia were synonymous, and the Premiers of other states realised they were in danger of being left behind.

At times, like all boosters, he was prone to hyperbole. Melbourne, for example, became "the Detroit of Australia" and Victoria "the most dynamic and progressive state".

Bolte was no orator, but he gave an impression of simple sincerity and goodwill and he never indulged in personalities or "mud slinging". He enjoyed the respect of all sections of Parliament.

At election after election Victoria stuck to him. One of his biggest electoral triumphs came only six months after the Menzies Government imposed its "credit squeeze" in the early 1960s — a measure which fell with particular harshness on the large motor factories of Victoria. Bolte is said to have been among those who warned the Federal Government it had gone too far. Despite an atmosphere unfavourable to the Liberals, the Bolte Government was returned with an increased majority. This surprising success helped beguile the Menzies Government into believing the electors generally approved its actions — a complacency which almost proved fatal at the 1961 general election.

The Premier dominated both his own front bench and the Legislative Assembly, and by this time had developed a persuasive television personality.

In 1965, looking back at his first 10 years in office, he said that the job had changed almost beyond recognition. Once, it had been almost part-time; in 1955 he worked mainly from 9 to 5; in 1965 it was 9am to 11 pm most days.

The advent of television in 1965, he noted, had made the biggest single change in the life of a Victorian Premier. Everything had become more demanding.

In May, 1970, he said that the salvation of his political life was his sheep farm.

"I've insisted that we go back to the farm every weekend, Saturday or Sunday or preferably both," he said. "You can switch off from being a Premier and think about sheep."

In the 1966 New Year Honours he became Sir Henry Bolte, (and later received a higher honour), but it made no difference to his political style, and he shrugged off rumours of retirement.

In his later years as Premier, Sir Henry became an increasingly uncompromising champion of state rights (even making an abortive attempt to introduce what amounted to a state income tax).

He believed, he said, that popular feeling against a single centralised Government was stronger in 1970 than in 1950.

The announcement of his retirement brought genuine expressions of regret. Sir Robert Menzies stated the general verdict: "A jolly good Premier."

Sir Henry himself said: "I have loved the rough and tumble of politics. I felt very miserable this morning about getting out. On the other hand it is a tremendous weight off my mind."

He never really retired from the hustings, campaigning in state and federal elections after his retirement as Premier.

Probably the most memorable of these campaigns was for the 1977 federal election when Sir Henry wrote and appeared in a number of anti-Labor commercials aired on the electronic media which were disowned by the Liberal Party.

He also aroused some comment when he actively campaigned for the National Party in the 1983 Queensland election.

In February, 1984, he addressed an audience of about 300 Liberal supporters in Melbourne at the opening campaign for the Corangamite by-election when a seat was vacated by the resignation of Tony Street.

After his retirement, Sir Henry joined a number of boards. But there was some comment in the media when he joined the board of Ansett Transport Industries Ltd in 1974. Two years earlier, the Victorian Government had intervened to freeze a take over bid for Ansett by TNT by setting up a committee of inquiry.

Sir Henry was a keen athlete who played Australian Rules football until he was 40 and cricket until he was 46. He was a moderately successful racehorse owner. In 1934 he had married Edith Elder, of Skipton, a girl he had known most of his life. They had no children.

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Citation details

'Bolte, Sir Henry Edward (1908–1990)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Henry Bolte, 1959

Henry Bolte, 1959

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L30665

Life Summary [details]


20 May, 1908
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


4 January, 1990 (aged 81)
Bamganie, Victoria, Australia

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