In the Alas, Poor Harry timeline, Harold Holt, Australia's 17th Prime Minister, does not go swimming on that fateful morning on December 17, 1967. He stays in bed and later goes for a walk. Though the friends who planned on swimming with him are disappointed, they get over it quickly - Harry is the Prime Minister, and he's had a bit on his mind.
Holt subsequently lives to see Christmas and into 1968, but all is not well. Holt faces a country that is rapidly becoming divided over one issue: the Vietnam War.
After the New Year celebration, Holt summoned Cabinet to discuss the government's agenda for the next twelve months. Among them was a discussion about Australia's troop commitment to Vietnam. Some in the Cabinet, including John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser advocated a more actively independent foreign policy, though nobody directly suggested an early troop withdrawal. Holt himself wanted to increase deployment over the coming year. The war was not yet greatly unpopular among Australians.
Another key issue facing the Holt government was immigration. Holt had already successfully removed key aspects of the White Australia policy, opening up immigration to Asians. He now proposed a series of further reforms, which Cabinet adopted. The omnibus Migrants Act (1968) was tabled in Parliament in April and passed through the House of Representatives, and the Senate, in June. Labor, now led by the charismatic Gough Whitlam, supported the legislation.
Another key Holt priority in 1968 was Aboriginal affairs. With the successful referendum result of 1967 giving the Commonwealth power to make laws regarding Aboriginal people, Holt drafted legislation to establish a series of commissions to tackle the serious health problems in Aboriginal communities. However, he bawlked at suggestions from Labor MPs that Indigenous land should be returned to its traditional owners.
Throughout 1968, despite his successes, Holt faced considerable criticism within the Liberal Party. The serious mishandling of the 1967 VIP planes affair had damaged Holt's credibility. Furthermore, he had suffered from a number of health complaints. In 1967 he had collapsed in the House - he claimed a "vitamin deficiency" but rumours of something more serious, like a heart condition, persisted.
As 1968 rolled on, Holt became increasingly aware of a plot by Liberal powerbrokers to remove him. Whitlam had continually bested Holt in Parliament, and the growing feeling was that Holt would be unable to stem Labor's momentum at the 1969 election. Indeed, at the half-Senate election in 1967, just a year after the routing Liberal win at the general election, Labor had done very well and the Coalition very poorly.
The key plotter was William McMahon, Holt's Treasurer. Perhaps fortunately for Holt, the leader of the Country Party, John "Black Jack" McEwen, despised McMahon and, in August 1968, told McMahon that he would never consent to serve in a Coalition with McMahon as leader. This information was leaked to the press, and fuelled Coalition tensions.
In September, Holt reshuffled the Cabinet. Notably, McMahon was demoted from Treasury to the less-glamourous job of Minister for National Development. Paul Hasluck, previously External Affairs minister, became Treasurer and was replaced by John Gorton. In one of the largest promotions, 38-year-old Malcolm Fraser became Minister for Defence, replacing Allen Fairhall, who was dumped altogether.
The reshuffle infuriated McMahon and delighted McEwen, who kept his Trade portfolio as leader of the Country Party. McMahon then pulled what he probably thought was his masterstroke - in the lead-up to Christmas, McMahon, labelled by Whitlam as "Billy the Leak", arranged the leaking of papers implicating Holt further in the VIP planes scandal. The leak, however damaging to Holt, was equally damaging to McMahon. The former Treasurer was shown to be sour and bitter, disloyal and untrustworthy. Though it was never directly proved McMahon orchestrated the leak, the appearance was enough for Holt to dismiss McMahon fromm Cabinet in November 1968. McMahon retired hurt to the backbench to lick his wounds while Holt struggled with further health problems. In early December, Holt suffered an angina attack while working at the Lodge and was rushed to hospital. Urged by doctors to take it easy, Holt took extra time off over Christmas. That decision probably sealed his fate.
Notes: fleshing-out to follow
- Holt remains popular but the Vietnam War becomes increasingly less so.
- Conscription is introduced, which Defence minister Fraser opposes.
- As opposition to the war mounts, so too does pressure on Holt.
- McMahon challenges Holt for the leadership in an Australian first in May 1969 but loses. Whitlam and Labor soar ahead in popularity.
- Holt wins the 1969 election but only by the narrowest of margins. Labor wins the popular vote and the Coalition suffers a large swing against them. One of the casualties is McMahon, who loses his seat.
- Early in 1970, an anti-war protester makes an attempt on Holt's life. The attempt is rather uncoordinated and haphazard, and the PM is in no serious danger, but it rattles Holt considerably.
- As the number of war dead racks up, Holt suffers a heart attack on June 1. The attack is serious and cripples Holt for weeks, but he stubbornly refuses to resign as Prime Minister. It is only after McEwen persuades him to stand aside that Holt agrees to step down, which he does on June 20.
- There is no obvious candidate to succeed Holt with McMahon gone. Hasluck is too old (he would retire at the 1972 election) and Fraser too young. Gorton is a Senator and Fairhall doesn't want the job. The two leading candidates that emerge are David Fairbairn, Education minister, and Leslie Bury, who as Labour minister is deeply unpopular due to his responsibility for conscription. Fairbairn therefore wins the parliamentary vote and becomes Prime Minister.
- Whitlam wins the 1972 election, though by a much smaller margin than in OTL. The Liberal leadership goes to Malcolm Fraser right after the election.