For a brief time, earlier this year, Sir Henry Bolte’s ghost was raised in the media and in Vic. Parliament. Crikey’s own parole officer revisits the Bolte years and examines the constitution of an “Icon”.

The media then reminded us that Sir Henry Bolte was a “Liberal icon”. And no wonder – longest serving Victorian premier – 17 years! – who chose his own time to retire undefeated. Also, Jeff Kennett had declared him his model.

This drew me to deal with this icon (the term suggests worship of a stylized image). But more recently, there has been another reason to write about him – the concern about the stresses on politicians and their resulting problems (e. g., three times the average rate of marital breakdown).

But let’s be clear at the outset, that the cruelties of our political system are “better than Kosovo”. To shorten Churchill’s famous dictum in the House of Commons: democracy is the worst of all possible systems – except the others.

The undoing of this claim about Bolte showed that “alcohol problems” are still stigmatised as a character defect and not accepted as a health problem – which would certainly ease dealing with them (By the way, the use of “grog-strife” or “alcohol problems” as terms instead of “alcoholism” was recommended years ago by a Dr O’Neill of NSW, because the latter term stirs up endless fruitless argument and denial, whereas the strife is starkly displayed and unarguable). It’s better to accept that for some professions, alcohol problems are a hazard. Lawyers, union officials, priests, politicians and journalists are all prone to alcohol addiction.

From my five years in the Victorian Parole (and Probation) Service, 1961-66, while they groaned under monstrous caseloads, I could add parole officers to the list. That I’m not addicted myself is due merely to luck of heredity – certainly not any strength of character.

Denied and untreated, the behaviour problems get worse. Obviously I’m getting around to a claim that Sir Henry did indeed have such problems: but how to distinguish them from corruption due to wielding inordinate power?

However, let’s first give Sir Henry some of his due. Too much has sometimes been made of his phenomenal luck – the equivalent probably of twice winning the first prize in Tatts. Look at this luck.

Just a year after Bolte was elected to State Parliament, Premier Tom Hollway, because they’d both gone to Ballarat Grammar, made him a Minister. Peter Blazey’s fine political biography, Bolte, sets out how Tom Hollway, who seemed a natural politician in contrast to rough-hewn Bolte, then proceeded to destroy himself, partly with his quest to end the traditional Victorian “gerrymander” (whereby in 1945, 57 country votes equated to 100 city ones. No neglect of country Victoria then, folks!). Then Bolte got to be deputy leader of the Liberals – although Arthur Rylah gained more votes, the convention of the party then was that either the leader or his deputy should be from the country, so Bolte became deputy. Hollway, defeated and expelled from the Liberal Party, stood against the new leader and beat him. Bolte stayed as deputy while Trevor Oldham (fortunately, another city chap) became leader.

Then on the way to Elizabeth’s coronation, Oldham and his wife were killed in a plane crash. Bolte, with his strength and skills unrecognised, became leader. I leave out some other items of luck listed by Blazey, but note the main one: after much fairer electorates (two state for each federal) had delivered power to the Labor Party (as Hollway’s critics had feared), the 1954 Split ruined the government of the first John Cain. With secret funding for the DLP spoilers on Bolte’s behalf, Labor was out for a generation.

But British journalist, James Margach, (see The Anatomy of Power) writing of twelve British PM’s he’d known, reckoned that the paramount need for getting to power was sheer luck – the best PM’s were long shots and dark horses in the leadership stakes. Margach gives the worst rating to Chamberlain and Eden – the only heirs apparent who became PM’s.

So, Bolte’s luck was normal for a successful leader!

On the other side of luck: since Crikey is a topical and freewheeling ezine, let’s spare a moment of sympathy for Phil Gude (deputy to Jeff Kennett, of course) who like the rest of us knew that Jeff had to win last year, so quit Parliament.

But I’m spiralling away from that icon.

We left Sir Henry when he had become Premier, which was in 1955. Blazey claims that Bolte himself could hardly believe it. But he then showed his strength and ability in bringing in a host of necessary measures, long overdue – delayed by decades of Country Party misrule: they (according to Blazey) to keep in power, had shown they would make any deal with anyone at all.

I believe that Sir Henry Bolte’s behaviour in his latter years as Premier showed the damaging effects of (untreated) alcohol addiction. I present below evidence for this addiction which is good enough for me – and as part of my last job, I worked part-time for seven years in an alcohol and drug treatment unit.

But how can one separate out the effects, also damaging, of excessive power? The over-quoted remark about how all power tends to corrupt etc., was made by Lord Acton, himself a Catholic, with reference to the Vatican. It expressed a rule with few exceptions.

About Bolte, Blazey writes how with positive legislative plans fulfilled or exhausted, and an Opposition without hope of defeating him, Bolte was too free to indulge himself.

The Ryan hanging of 1967 was seen as Bolte’s greatest crisis. Notably, the crisis developed only because Bolte was determined to override all opposition, including powerful people in his own party and the media like Sir John Williams (once editor, and by that time chairman of the board, of the Melbourne Herald) who was firmly against the death penalty. The hanging had no political necessity.

As Paul Barry writes in his book about the Packers, since the last hanging in Victoria in 1952, fifty death sentences had been commuted. Five years before, Bolte had fought and lost a battle to hang murderer, Robert Peter Tait – lost it due to a last minute recourse by the other side to a new definition of insanity – you couldn’t hang an insane man.

Bolte’s opponents on capital punishment, me included, developed a firm idea that he had waited for a killer to be convicted who was obviously sane, so as to get even with the intellectuals and do-gooders like Anglicans David Scott and Bishop Geoffrey Sambell who had so thwarted him over the Tait case. Escaping from Pentridge Prison with another man, Ronald Ryan shot and killed a warder with a carbine that he’d seized during the escape; and there was nothing mad about escaping from prison.

Blazey thinks that Bolte by hanging Ryan (it was very much his show) alienated many Liberals like Sir Arthur Rylah and Sir John Williams. Blazey thinks Bolte himself was much affected by it: writing (page 146) that “he compulsively referred to it when he was at drinking sessions with journalists…He was always incredibly boastful and determined to prove that he was right. During one such gathering at the Hotel Canberra in July 1971, he could not stop referring to it, saying such things as ‘If you want to win an election have a hanging – I proved that with Ryan'”.

Blazey does not seem aware of this as behaviour typical of alcoholic problems.

I can think of another case of such behaviour. From the Labor side there was the posthumous admission by former Senator Jim McLelland that he had committed perjury to help Mr Justice Lionel Murphy – this was discussed from personal knowledge by journalists Wendy Bacon and David Marr on Radio National’s Media Report last year. McLelland’s perjury had besmirched the standing of Murphy’s accusers.

The weird thing is that McLelland made a habit of confessing these shameful deeds late at night at parties and to journalists. Surely this was so queer that it must have been due to drinking problems? What else could explain it?

My knowledge about Bolte’s alcohol problems came in the late eighties from a professional acquaintance. She was of undoubted integrity. Learning of my interest in Sir Henry, she told me the following. She was working at Ballarat Hospital when Sir Henry was admitted after an accident. Some days after his admission , he started to go into the DTs – delirium tremens – which is the symptom of too sudden withdrawal from alcohol: people have died from such sudden withdrawal. My informant had no axe to grind, and no real interest in politics.

A minor document to confirm this is a cutting someone sent me from the Melbourne Sun dated 4th October, 1984. Headed “Probe over blood tests”, the cutting read in part:

“The Police Minister, Mr Mathews, yesterday said that attempts were being made to foster public cynicism over the Sir Henry Bolte blood test substitution….

Mr Mathews hit out at a “scurrilous” leaflet being circulated among the press and MPs alleging irregularities in the inquiry into the handling of the blood sample.

A copy of the leaflet, issued by a group identifying itself only as Citizens for Equal Justice, was handed to the police yesterday….

Mr Mathews defended the handling of the inquiry, which was unable to identify those responsible for the substitution.

The substitution followed a car crash involving Sir Henry outside his home at Bamganie on March 24.” (ends ).

(Elsewhere the cutting indicates that the problem – substitution – occurred at Ballarat Hospital.).

So, without stigma, how about accepting that politicians – not least the toughest of them – can succumb to alcohol problems? This gives more chance that the problems can be tackled before they deteriorate too badly.

With that out of the way, I want in a second article to go into the question of political accountability in the Ryan case. Should Sir Henry Bolte, that relentless public avenger, have been held accountable for the three deaths involved?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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