Attempted assassination of Arthur Calwell

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Attempted Assassination of Arthur Calwell
Location Mosman Town Hall, Sydney, Australia
Date 21 June 1966
Target Arthur Calwell
Attack type
assassination attempt
Weapons .22 rifle
Non-fatal injuries
Victim Arthur Calwell
Perpetrator Peter Kocan

On 21 June 1966 an assassination attempt was made on Arthur Calwell then leader of the Australian Labour Party.[1] It was arguably the second assassination attempt in Australian political history following Henry James O'Farrell's attempt on the life of Prince Alfred. (Although Percival Brookfield had been killed and Thomas Ley murdered several political opponents.[2])

Assassination attempt[edit]

Calwell had just finished a rally at Mosman Town Hall and walked to his car. A 19-year-old factory worker Peter Kocan approached with a .22 sawn-off rifle hidden in his overcoat. Calwell wound down his window, Kocan aimed the gun at Calwell's jugular and pulled the trigger. The window deflected the bullet and Calwell only suffered minor injuries. He spent one night in hospital.[3]

Kocan fled after shooting but was soon captured by Wayne Haylen, the student son of Les Haylen.

The police said Kocan told them after his arrest:

Unless I did something out of the ordinary I realized I would remain a nobody all my life. I came to the conclusion that however hard it was I would have to do something that would set me apart from other nobodies. I would not have done anything so cruel as shoot someone if I had any alternative. That's why I shot Mr Calwell. I'm sorry I caused pain to Mr Calwell... I went there with that intention [to shoot him] and when I fired a shot I didn't care if I hit him or not. I just wanted to get it over with... [He decided to shoot Calwell] When I read an advertisement in the paper last Saturday about the meeting... [He cut the rifle down] Because it was too bulky. If I was going to assassinate anyone like Mr Kennedy from a window it would have been all right, but it was too bulky to conceal under any clothing... I stood in the lobby of the town hall. 1 just waited for Mr Calwell to come out, and he came out and talked to various people, and then he went towards his car talking to other people. He got into his car; time was running out. I had the gun in my bell under my coat. I drew the gun, walked up to the window and fired in the general direction of the window. I didn't expect to get away, and I did not intend to run, but when it happened, I decided to run away as a reflex action... I did not intend to shoot Mr Calwell at first. I wanted to assassinate some public figure. I did not agree with Mr Calwell's politics and that made it easier to choose him.[4]

Kocan later reflected, "the shooting logic was in the air at the time", pointing to the assassitions of Ngo Dinh Diem, John F. Kennedy, Hendrik Verwoerd and Malcolm X. "Unfortunately, we are creatures who pick up on what's around," he said. "If it had been a different era, my actions may have been different... Insofar as I had any thoughts about what would happen after the shooting, I assumed I'd be cut down in a hail of bullets."[5]


Kocan was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The presiding judge ruled that:

It is necessary for me to pass such a sentence to deter any other per son from even considering an attempt upon the life and safety of our public men... 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... 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 out weighed. 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.[6]

The sentence was upheld on appeal.[7]

He served time at Sydney's Long Bay Gaol before being transferred to Morriset Psychiatric Hospital for the criminally insane,[8] where he began to study literature, philosophy and history and write poetry. His work was eventually published and Kocan was released after ten years.[9][10][11]

Calwell wrote a letter to Kocan forgiving him for the act.


  1. ^ Graham Freudenberg, 'Calwell, Arthur Augustus (1896–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University accessed 9 November 2013
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Mr Calwell rests at home". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995). ACT: National Library of Australia. 23 June 1966. p. 1. Retrieved 21 February 2016. 
  4. ^ "Trial for alleged attempted murder". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995). ACT: National Library of Australia. 13 July 1966. p. 1. Retrieved 21 February 2016. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Life sentence for Calwell shooting". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995). ACT: National Library of Australia. 31 August 1966. p. 1. Retrieved 21 February 2016. 
  7. ^ "Kocan's life term stands". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995). ACT: National Library of Australia. 19 October 1966. p. 3. Retrieved 21 February 2016. 
  8. ^ "Kocan moved to security mental home". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995). ACT: National Library of Australia. 31 December 1966. p. 3. Retrieved 21 February 2016. 
  9. ^ Shane Moloney, "Arthur Calwell and Peter Kocan", The Monthly, August 2007 accessed 9 November 2013
  10. ^ Stephen Romei, "Failed assassin Peter Kocan wins top literary award", The Australian, 25 November 2010 accessed 9 November 2013
  11. ^ Jane Sullivan, "Pivotal chapter in Peter Kocan's life", The Age 3 July 2004 accessed 9 November 2013