“One of the three S’s, I suppose.”
- Sir Henry Bolte
Henry Bolte (1908 – 1990) was Australia’s longest serving Victorian Premier, from 1955 to 1972. An astute politician with a shrewd sense of what would appeal to the public, he was a chain smoking, whisky swigging right wing politician who promoted an image of a rough, earthy, simple, man at odds with trade unions, teachers, liberals, strikers and protesters.
He was never reluctant to express himself to journalists and reporters knew they could always re;y on him for a good quote. Asked by reporters what his opinion was of Prime Minister John Gorton, he said nothing, simply held his nose and mimicked pulling a toilet chain.
Shortly before his retirement he was telephoned on a Saturday night by the news editor of The Sunday Observer, a paper hostile to Bolte, to ask whether the rumour that he was retiring because he had been offered a position on the board of The Herald & Weekly Times, now News Limited. The following conversation took place:
Bolte: Nah, not true. What paper did you say you were from, son?
Journalist: The Sunday Observer.
Bolte: Well, you got the story wrong. I'm joining the board of your paper.
Journalist: In that case I'm going to quit.
Bolte: You better, son, because you're the first **** I'm going to sack when I get there.
Bolte is, however, best remembered as the last Australian politician to approve capital punishment.
In 1965 two prisoners, Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker, escaped from Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. In the process a guard was shot and killed. They were recaptured outside Concord Hospital after Ryan had arranged a double date with an ex-girlfriend who tipped off the police. Ryan was sentenced to death for murder, despite considerable doubt that he had fired the fatal shot.
Although the State Government of Victoria had commuted every one of the previous 35 death penalty cases, back to 1951, Bolte refused to do so. Publicly he maintained that the death penalty was a necessary deterrent for crime against government officials and law enforcement officers. Privately, it was considered that Bolte was playing to the public for support for re-election.
His refusal to recommend clemency and his insistence on having Ryan hanged earned him the opposition of the Melbourne press, the churches, the universities and most of the legal profession. It also alienated sections of the Liberal Party and some members of his own Cabinet,
According to the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 February 1966:
“...when it [hanging] is violently opposed by at least half the community, when it more and more seems to be the decision of one man – and that man a politician, not a judge – then it is intolerable. We believe that the sentence on Ryan should be commuted and that no man should ever again be hanged in Australia."
Opposition was universal.
Four of the jury members went so far as to request intervention on the basis that when they found Ryan guilty, they were under the belief that the death penalty had been abolished in Victoria.
An estimated 18,000 people participated in street protests and 15,000 signed a petition against the hanging. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) suspended radio broadcasts for two minutes as a protest.
At 8.000am on Friday, 3 February 1967, Ronald Ryan was hanged.
In his last moments he had written a letter to his daughters, in which he said:
“With regard to my guilt I say only that I am innocent of intent and have a clear conscience in the matter.”
A journalist asked Bolte what he was doing at the moment that Ronald Ryan was hanged. “One of the three Ss, I suppose” he replied. When asked what he meant, he responded: “A shit, a shave or a shower.”
At the Victorian State elections of 29 April 1967 Bolte’s Liberals were re-elected and gained six seats.