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Harold Norman (Harry) Holgate (1933–1997)

by Bruce Montgomery

Harry Holgate. Former Tasmanian premier. Born Maitland, NSW, December 5, 1933. Died Launceston, March 16, aged 63.

Harry Holgate was the last leader of a majority Labor government in Tasmania. The journalist turned politician was premier of Tasmania from November 11, 1981, until May 26, 1982, at the height of the Franklin Dam imbroglio, during which he overthrew his predecessor, Doug Lowe.

Having deposed Lowe in November, Holgate then prorogued the Parliament for four months in order to delay the inevitable motion of no confidence in his government that was to follow when Lowe and another Labor MP, Mary Willey, resigned from the party in protest. They joined Democrat Dr Norman Sanders on the crossbenches, giving the three the balance of power.

As he finally tried to legislate to flood the Franklin, Holgate was defeated on Sanders's no-confidence motion on March 26, 1982, the ensuing May election putting Robin Gray in power for the first time. Holgate had sat in the House of Assembly as premier for only seven days.

"Headline Harry", named for his obsession with orchestrating media stunts as Speaker seven years before he became premier, was born Harold Norman Holgate at Maitland in NSW on December 5, 1933. His father, an Royal Australian Air Force airman, was killed in the early stages of World War II when his bomber was believed to have been shot down over the English Channel.

Holgate was educated at Maitland High School and the University of Tasmania. He was a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald (1952-55) and the Melbourne Herald (1955-62) before moving to Tasmania in 1963 to join The Examiner as a political reporter.

In 1970 he became the executive producer of ABC television's This Day Tonight current affairs program in Tasmania, despite the widespread knowledge that he was a card-carrying member of the ALP.

His endorsement by the party for the 1972 State election ignited a revolt within the news and current affairs divisions that echoes down the corridors of the ABC until this day.

Four TDT reporters — John Honey, Bruce Grundy, Roger Lupton and Barry Pierce — told the ABC that should Holgate lose the election, he should not be allowed to return to TDT as executive producer. It would compromise their positions as independent reporters and taint the perceived political independence of the program.

The four argued that the ABC's guidelines on staff seeking political office did not take account of the Tasmanian Hare-Clark electoral system. Even if Holgate did not win a seat at the election in the first instance, he could pick one up later because casual vacancies were decided by a recount of the original votes cast. Their prediction came true.

But the ABC backed Holgate. He did not win a seat and was allowed to return to his job. The four reporters quit in protest and never returned to ABC current affairs programs.

A year later Holgate left the ABC to become press secretary to the Launceston-based deputy prime minister, Lance Barnard, and in 1974 won his seat in Parliament when Dr Alan Foster resigned and Holgate won on a recount of Foster's preferences.

Holgate was a tall, straight-backed man, constantly smiling, yet the smile concealing the thought processes going on within. He was always alert to what was going on around him, hand ever out to greet friend or foe. He courted the media unmercifully from Speaker to premier, aware, of course, of their foibles.

"'Headline Harry' was a name he wore with pride," his long-time friend and colleague Michael Polley recalled. Polley was elected in 1972 and is still an MHA. "He came into Parliament in 1974 and was only in there for a few months before there was a vacancy for the Speakership when Eric Barnard was elevated to the ministry."

"Another MP, Ken Austin, was supposed to get the job, but some other MPs, including Michael Barnard and Hedley Farquhar, saw Harry as a threat and decided to shut him up and put him in as Speaker. It was the worst thing they could have done because he made the Speakership akin to being governor of the State ... Harry developed, with his journalistic skills, a position of authority and used it."

Holgate once threatened to use his powers to lock Opposition MP Geoff Pearsall in the dungeon for contempt of Parliament. As the issue was being debated in the House, Holgate and Pearsall were maximising their TV exposure deep in the vaults.

Holgate romped back in 1976 and at the 1979 election he topped the poll in Bass, out-polling Michael Barnard, nephew of Lance.

"He beat Barnard, he beat the Barnard name. He thought that that was one of his great achievements," State Labor leader Michael Field recalled.

Between 1979 and 1981, there was a three-way power play for the leadership of the ALP and hence the premiership. Premier Lowe's failure to lead the party to a decisive position on the Franklin Dam issue, his selection of "young turk" ministers over old stagers Eric Barnard and Darrel Baldock led to the parliamentary party's loss of confidence in him, even though he remained tremendously popular with the electorate.

Lowe was also losing support at Trades Hall and, in particular, alienated the godfather of the party, Leo Brown of the Miscellaneous Workers Union, a William Bendix look-alike from the Left.

Lowe, Holgate and Lowe's ambitious deputy, Neil Batt, fought for the numbers, but personal ambition worked against a change.

"While it was a three-way tussle, it was stable," Field said, "because Harry wouldn't let Neil get up and Neil wouldn't let Harry. There was a lot of ambition and animosity. It was a really bad scene and the anxiety over the Franklin was underlying all of it."

The deadlock between the Upper House, the Legislative Council and the Lower House over whether the Franklin should be dammed for its hydro-electric potential provided unresolved tension.

Batt resigned to do charitable work in Bangladesh. Holgate, manoeuvred by Polley and with deputy premier Michael Barnard's connivance, moved on Lowe on November 11, 1981, the day after the Liberals had replaced their leader, Pearsall, with Gray. Holgate became premier, but he had created enemies, rats within the ranks.

In December 1981 Lowe and Willey defected to the crossbenches to join the lone Democrat, Sanders, elected at the Denison by-election in February 1980.

When they defected, depriving Labor of its majority in the 35-seat House, it was clear Holgate's days as premier would be short-lived, that the three "independents" would execute him for what he had done to Lowe and to the Franklin. Holgate sat for six days as premier in November 1981 and then prorogued the Parliament.

"Harry was trying to buy time," Field said. "But people reacted against him running away from Parliament."

The Holgate government fell on March 26, 1982, the seventh day on which he had led the Government in Parliament. The first Gray government was elected in May.

On June 29, 1989, Holgate took his revenge on Gray. The premier had failed to retain his government's majority at the May election and was seeking to survive in minority, despite media baron Edmund Rouse's best efforts to bribe a Labor MP to save the Liberals.

Holgate secured the passage of the motion of no confidence in the government that brought down Gray.

"I bear no grudges," Holgate said.

He lost his seat in 1992 and worked in tourism in northern Tasmania until late last year, when the cancers in his lung and liver were diagnosed.

Gray remembers Holgate as "a man you could not dislike ... He could be a rogue, but I did like the bloke."

Holgate travelled recently from his home at Hillwood in northern Tasmania to address the Caucus in Hobart.

"Most of us had tears in our eyes," Field said, "but Harry just sat there and talked about it. He always moved on, Harry. Never dwelled. He just kept moving."

Holgate said recently: "Better to have been premier for a day than never to have been premier at all."

Harry Holgate leaves his wife, Ros; and children, Phoebe, Ben, Duncan and Kate.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bruce Montgomery, 'Holgate, Harold Norman (Harry) (1933–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

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