You can’t kill an ideal with a bullet

To my knowledge  there has only been one significant assassination attempt on an Australian in ‘high political office’. It occurred in June 1966, when a 19‐year‐old man shot then Leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, at the Mosman Town Hall in Sydney, after he had spoken at a public meeting.

Cartoon by Chris Grosz

Gough Whitlam and Arthur Calwell

Mr. Calwell went on to lose the Federal election to Harold Holt in November and was replaced as Labour Party Leader by his deputy, Gough Whitlam. The would-be assassin, Peter Kocan, spent 10 years in a mental hospital, then became a significant poet and writer.

Holt’s crude manoeuvre on Calwell incident

SYDNEY: Prime Minister Holt’s crude attempt to turn last week’s attempted assassination of Opposition leader A. Calwell into a political attack on the peace movement has caused widespread concern. A shooting attack was made on Mr. Calwell just after he had made a strong address to 900 people at an anti-conscription, anti-Vietnam war meeting at Mosman. The attack shocked the Australian public.

Calwell on his way to hospital

Kocan on his way to a Police station


Within two days Mr. Holt had made a considered statement on the need to tighten security and pinpointing as “reasons” for the increased possibility of such an attack: —

  • Growth of the migrant community.
  • Ideas for demonstrative political action among young people, inspired by actions of youth in neighboring countries.
  • Tendencies for public demonstrations to “pass beyond the border of legitimate protest into a process of harassment and intimidation.” 

In fact— as Mr. Holt’s haste indicated — the Government and its supporters were afraid that their side in the Vietnam struggle might suffer bad political repercussions from the attack.


External Affairs Minister Hasluck stated in 1964 that the Government saw “no alternative to force” in dealing with Asians with whom it disagreed. On March 28 this year Defence Minister Fairhall attacked street demonstrations which he said could turn into civil war.

We have got to put our foot on it, he said, with a further reference to “the fifth column in our midst”.

Three days later the Minister for Labor and National Service, Mr. Bury, talked about Australia’s “enemies” conducting “political warfare in our midst”. The NSW Labor Council last week said

violence of this kind is abhorrent to the Australian people who have strong democratic traditions, including freedom of expression and of political activity

Tribune (Sydney, NSW : 1939 – 1976), Wednesday 29 June 1966, page 3

Calwell returns to speak again

SYDNEY: Mr. A. A. Calwell, Federal Opposition leader, will speak at a Vietnam anti-conscription rally in the Sydney Town Hall next Sunday, July 3, at 8.30 p.m. (following church services). This will be Mr. Calwell’s first return-visit to the city where his assassination was attempted.

At last week’s meeting at Mosman before he was shot, Mr. Calwell told the 900 people who packed the Town Hall that

this is an unjust war and we are in it only because America is

While he supported the American alliance, which Labor had “created”, he thought American actions in Vietnam were completely wrong. Mr. Calwell said he favored recognition of the Chinese People’s Republic (with rights of self-determination for Formosa) and its admission into the UN. He also favored trade with China and the development of this into diplomatic relations. He said that the people of Vietnam had the right to elect a Communist Government if they wanted one. He followed Senator Robert Kennedy in calling for a free election over the whole of Vietnam as soon as possible. In a vigorous reply to questions, Mr. Calwell said the “Viet Cong” (National Liberation Front) must be recognised. According to the Government’s own admission, they controlled some 97 per cent of the country. They could not do that without substantial support from the people. About half an hour before being shot Mr. Calwell said:

You can’t kill an ideal with a bullet

— as the Government seemed to think.

Tribune (Sydney, NSW : 1939 – 1976), Wednesday 29 June 1966, page 3

Kocan moved to security mental home

SYDNEY, Friday. — Peter Raymond Kocan, convicted of attempting to murder the Federal Opposition Leader, Mr Calwell, was transferred today to the State’s maximum security psychiatric hospital at Morisset. Earlier, the Minister for Health, Mr Jago, had signed a certificate declaring him “mentally ill”. Kocan, 19, pleaded guilty at Central Criminal Court last August to having fired a shot at Mr Calwell on June 21 at Mosman Town Hall.

The NSW Chief Justice, Sir Leslie Herron, in sentencing Kocan to life imprisonment said,

I am satisfied your motive was to acquire notoriety by assassinating a public figure

Kocan has been held in the observation section at Long Bay Gail since the sentence was imposed on him. Prison officials said the section housed prisoners undergoing psychiatric examinations.

Doctors’ concern

Some doctors had expressed concern at what was described as a deterioration in Kocan’s mental condition. Medical evidence given in court when Kocan was sentenced stated that he was subject to “fantasies”.

Dr S. Rowe, a psychiatrist at the North Shore Medical Centre, told Sir Leslie Herron that Kocan had wished to end his life in a blaze of publicity and notoriety. He said Kocan was preoccupied with death and had often walked in Waverley Cemetery looking at headstones. In his opinion Kocan was “mentally ill” and could be termed a borderline schizophrenic.

Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), Saturday 31 December 1966, page 3

Life sentence for Calwell shooting. Plea of guilty

SYDNEY, Tuesday. — Peter Raymond Kocan, 19, factory hand, was sentenced to life imprisonment today for the attempted murder of the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Mr Calwell. Earlier, Kocan, of Lang Road, Centennial Park, Sydney, pleaded guilty to wounding Mr Calwell with intent to murder after a political meeting at Mosman on June 21.

Outside the court at Darlinghurst, Mr Calwell shook hands with the youth’s mother, Mrs Kocan, and said, “I am sorry”.

Sir Leslie Herron said the decision to impose a life sentence on Kocan had been a

very difficult decision for me to reach. But it is necessary for me to pass such a sentence to deter any other person from even considering an attempt upon the life and safety of our public men.

He addressed Kocan for 10 minutes before he sentenced him to life imprisonment.

You have pleaded guilty to one of the most serious crimes in the criminal calendar and the plain fact must be faced that on June 21 at Mosman Town Hall a bullet fired by you lodged in the lapel of Mr Calwell’s coat and portion of it, with shattered glass, stuck in his chin. This public figure had a close call — his life I believe hung by a thread. Indeed, it seems that only by the intervention of Providence he is still alive.

Sir Leslie said he had no doubt it was Kocan’s deliberate intention to ‘murder Mr Calwell.’

All these preparations and your intent was to kill a public figure who was innocent of any offence against you except that you differed from his political views. I regret to say your previous good character must be set aside on this occasion because it must be outweighed, I think, by the gravity of the offence. I am satisfied your motive was to acquire notoriety or as you thought, the fame perhaps of assassinating a public figure. In this you were, I am absolutely satisfied, influenced by the publicity attending the assassination of President Kennedy. But community in Australia does not want the introduction of such criminal acts here. Public men in Australia must be free to go about their important affairs of State without fear of danger to life or limb. I must see that the law protects them to its utmost, said Sir Leslie.

Strong but wrong views

Sir Leslie said that while he believed Kocan had to some extent a disordered personality he did not think he was weak minded. He believed the youth was intelligent but had strong but wrong views on the way to achieve his ambitions of becoming important.

I have come to the conclusion that at the moment you are a danger to the community and the full force of the section of the Crimes Act in your case must be carried in full effect. Should your behaviour in prison and your mental condition and moral outlook warrant it you might look forward to being permitted to study and learn a trade.

Sir Leslie said that if Kocan’s behaviour warranted it the Minister for Justice might see fit to permit his return to society.

In order to enable you to do this I recommend you be afforded psychiatric treatment in jail, or certification under the Mental Health Act where you could be detained in an institution. I believe it is necessary for me to pass such a sentence as may deter any other person from even considering the molestation or any attempt upon the life and safety of our public figures, the judge said.

Consulting Government psychiatrist, Dr R. O. Schmalzbach, said in evidence he examined Kocan eight times between June 27 and August 18 and formed the opinion he was fit to plead in court. The psychiatrist said Kocan realised the nature and quality of his act.

Kocan’s mother said in evidence her son had never known the affection of a father. His father was killed before he was born and when she remarried his stepfather rejected the boy.

In his early years, in Melbourne, he was a good and intelligent boy, Mrs Kocan said.

Her second marriage was unhappy and she separated from her husband and came to Sydney.

Kocan ‘had fantasy’

Dr Sydney Gale Rowe, psychiatrist of the North Shore Medical Centre, told the Criminal Court Kocan had always been thinking of death and suicide. He said Kocan had a fantasy involving Lee Harvey Oswald who assassinated President Kennedy and was later shot dead. He had a fantasy of ending his own life in notorious circumstances, similar to the death of Oswald.

Asked if Kocan was mentally ill. Dr Rowe said:

He does suffer a mental illness but he is not psychotic. He is a borderline schizophrenic. he said.

Following the trial Mrs Kocan said she was considering an appeal. She had told the court her son had withdrawn following rejection by his stepfather. He gave up football and swimming and concentrated on reading, she said. “He left school at 14 to go to work and help out”.  She said her son had never been cruel to anything or anyone.

This morning Detective Senior Constable, B. J. Ballard, of North Sydney, gave evidence. He told the court that at about I0.50pm on the night of June 21, Kocan had fired a shot from a sawn-off .22 calibre rifle at the Leader of the Federal Opposition, Mr Calwell, who was sitting in a car outside Mosman Town Hall. The bullet struck the window of the car shattering it. A portion of the bullet enteral Mr Calwell’s coat lapel and peppered his chin with glass and shot.

Kocan had told him in an interview that he had sawn the barrel and the stock from a .22 rifle on the night before the shooting.

He asked Kocan why he had cut the rifle and the barrel down. Kocan had replied that it was too bulky and said it would have been all right if he was going to assassinate someone like Mr Kennedy from a window, but it was too bulky to put under his coat. Kocan had said:

I didn’t expect to get away. I didn’t intend to run when I planned it.

Started to run away

But when it happened I started to run away as a reflex action.

Detective Ballard said that when he asked Kocan when he had decided to shoot at Mr Calwell, Kocan replied:

I had the idea: it was a gradual thing. As time went by there was less and less reason not to go ahead with the plan. I didn’t intend to shoot Mr Calwell first. I wanted to assassinate some public figure . But I didn’t agree with Mr Calwell’s policy and that made “it easier”.

Detective Ballard said that when he asked Kocan whether he cared if Mr Calwell lived or died, he said:

I could not have helped what happened

Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), Wednesday 31 August 1966, page 1

Kocan began to write poetry in 1967. Two selected works of poetry, Ceremonies for the Lost (1974) and The Other Side of the Fence (1975), were published while he was at Morisset. He was released on licence from Morisset in August 1976, and began to write about his experiences. Two autobiographical novellas, The Treatment (1980) and The Cure (1983), told of his life in the asylum.

The Cure won the 1983 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. His other works include the poetry volumes Freedom to Breathe (1985), Standing with Friends (1992) and Fighting in the Shade (2000), the joint collection Primary Loyalties (1999), and the science-fiction novel Flies of a Summer (1988). The novel Fresh Fields (2004), is a fictionalised account of his youth. His most recent novel, The Fable of All Our Lives (2010), is based on his life after his release from Morisset.

Mr. Kocan was interviewed by ‘The Australian’ newspaper  journalist, Murray Waldren in 2004 – the following are excerpts from the published interview:

The shooting logic was in the air at the time, says Kocan quietly

In the three years before his June 1966 attempt, South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem, US president John Kennedy, South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd and black US radical MalcolmX had been murdered.

Unfortunately, we are creatures who pick up on what’s around. If it had been a different era, my actions may have been different.

 As might his fate.

Insofar as I had any thoughts about what would happen after the shooting, he admits, I assumed I’d be cut down in a hail of bullets.


Writing became my guiding preoccupation, he says, my source for recognising the beauty and preciousness of life. It sounds twee, but after the shooting I was this passive field of ashes … and when I started to write, it was like shoots of green grass coming up through the ashes.


We’re walking in the dark over a pit of crocodiles, but at the same time we’re out in a meadow of flowers walking in the light. Perhaps the whole key to being happy in life is to be able to make the light option more real simply by wanting it to be more real


Lives today are increasingly warped and dominated by all kinds of extremism. Nobody knows exactly what normality is, but you do start to know it very clearly when it’s not there.


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