Arthur Calwell & Peter Kocan
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
In the lead-up to a federal election, the Labor Opposition leader is shot at point-blank range as he leaves a rowdy public meeting. The bullet, fired from a sawn-off rifle, shatters the window of his car, spattering him with broken glass and bullet fragments. His would-be assassin drops the gun and runs away. He is chased, caught and overpowered without further incident. A 19-year-old factory hand, he says he wants to be remembered by history for killing somebody important. He chose his target "because I don't like his politics".
The Opposition leader, in shock and bleeding from the face, has narrowly escaped death. Deflected on impact with the window, the bullet has lodged in the lapel of his coat. The gunman is declared criminally insane, sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in a psychiatric prison. His victim sends him a letter of forgiveness and returns to the election campaign, in which national security is a major issue. When Labor is thrashed at the polls, he is compelled to cede the leadership to his younger, charismatic deputy.
His successor eventually steers Labor to victory and the former leader retires from parliament. Three years later, the gunman is set free and given a Literature Board grant to write poetry.
The year was 1966 and Arthur Calwell had been the Labor leader for six years. As the post-war immigration minister, he'd opened the country to huge numbers of refugees and new settlers, albeit on a racial basis. He was a deeply principled man but his pugnacious, old-fashioned style was unsuited to the age of television. His outspoken opposition to American bases, conscription and the war on Vietnam made him unpopular, and Whitlam's supporters viewed him as an electoral liability.
Peter Kocan was a casebook disturbed loner. Fatherless, disadvantaged and victimised, he left school at 14 and drifted though a series of menial jobs. On 21 June, he entered the Mosman Town Hall with a .22 hidden under his overcoat, mingled with the crowd and approached Calwell just as he was being driven away. Assuming the man was a well-wisher, Calwell began to wind down his window. Kocan aimed at his jugular and pulled the trigger.
In the asylum, a fellow inmate introduced him to the works of Rupert Brooke. He began to study literature, philosophy and history, and to write poetry. Two of his collections were published while he was still locked up, and his subsequent work draws on his experience of psychosis and imprisonment. His novella The Cure won the 1983 NSW Premier's Literary Award for fiction. In his science-fiction novel Flies of a Summer, he portrays a future in which all memories of the past have been erased.
Arthur Calwell, who died in 1973, is often remembered for saying "Two Wongs don't make a white." He was misquoted.