History tells us that Sydney’s salubrious North Shore suburbs are not immune to crime and violence, and indeed, attempted assassinations.

In 1868, a crazed Irish nationalist attempted to kill a visiting monarch, Prince Alfred, while he was picnicking at Clontarf. Ninety-eight years later, Peter Kocan, a disgruntled and disaffected factory worker, made an attempt on the life of the Federal Opposition Leader, Arthur Augustus Calwell, at Mosman.

Mosman Town Hall in 1947
Calwell had been appointed Australia’s first Minister for Immigration in 1945 under the Chifley Government. He held this post for four years until the Labor Party was defeated by the Menzies Government in the Federal Election. In 1960, after much party political turmoil including a ‘split’ in 1955, Calwell became the Opposition Leader.
Calwell was an old school politician, a stump orator who cut his teeth in rowdy public meetings. He has been described as having ‘an ingrained distrust of the press, sharpened by his capacity for splendid invective and [a] delight in provocation’.
On 21 June 1966, he was at Mosman Town Hall to address a meeting opposing the Vietnam War and compulsory conscription. Peter Kocan, then 19-years old, was lurking in the crowd, nursing a sawn-off .22 rifle under his coat. As Calwell left the meeting in his car, Kocan fired the rifle at point-blank range through the passenger-side window. Calwell had partally wound down the window to greet Kocan, thinking him a well-wisher.
Arthur Augustus Calwell, in happier times as Immigration Minister 1948, greeting the 100 000th British migrant to Australian shores
Arthur Augustus Calwell in happier times as Immigration Minister in 1948, greeting the 100,000th British migrant to Australian shores

Calwell later recalled that ‘had the car window been down, as I generally had it down, I would have been killed because the rifle was aimed at my jugular vein when the shot was fired’. He only sustained minor injuries because the bullet splintered on impact with the heavy glass. Shards from the bullet and glass sprayed his face, and the major section of bullet lodged into the left lapel of his jacket.

Kocan, Australia’s answer to Lee Harvey Oswald, was jailed for life ‘for wounding with intent to murder’. He began a life sentence at Long Bay Gaol but was transferred to Morisset Hospital’s Ward 6 after two prison psychologists declared him criminally insane. Kocan would later write to Calwell to express remorse for his actions.

In 1972 autobiography, Be Just and Fear Not, Calwell recalled that he had ‘replied to the young man’s letter in the most feeling way I could. I said that I accepted his apology, I urged him to forget the incident, and I wished him well. It is my intention when in Sydney to call and visit the young fellow and commiserate with him in the hope that some more warm-hearted sentiments might help him in his mental dilemma’.

Despite Calwell’s intention to visit Kocan at Morisset Hospital, he died in July 1973 before he had a chance to do so.

Kocan was released in 1976. During his ten years in institutional care, he had read vociferously and wrote poetry and prose. Two volumes of poetry were published while he was still in hospital, and a few years after his release, he published The Treatment and The Cure, a fictionalised account of his time at Morisset, which won the 1983 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.

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