David Combe was a significant and accomplished figure not only in Australian politics but in business and international trade, with an unwavering commitment to social justice and civil liberties. He deserves to be remembered for more than the “Iraqi Donations” affair of 1975-6, let alone the “Combe/Ivanov” affair of 1983. He won’t thank me for even mentioning them. Nor, I guess, will the Australian Labor Party, which he served as National Secretary from 1973 to 1981.
Arguably, those events are too long ago to dwell on. Nor should they define Harvey David Mathew Combe who died on 21 September, aged 76, after a long and gruelling battle with cancer.
However, Combe would not have begrudged us observing the irony that inappropriate political donations and the influence of foreign governments were making headlines, still and again, in the lead up to his death.
Indeed, his appreciation of humour, and his capacity for candour, whatever the cost, were among the many endearing qualities which distinguished him.
Combe was born in Adelaide on 26 April 1943 and educated at Prince Alfred College. He’d initially won a full scholarship there, reduced in later years to a part-scholarship, somewhat to his shame. He worked part-time after school, pulling petrol at a service station, to pay the balance of his school fees which his parents couldn’t afford.
At the University of Adelaide, where he completed a BA in 1963, he soon became involved in Labor politics. After an extraordinary 32 years of conservative government in South Australia, it was the dawn of the Don Dunstan era, which transformed South Australia and, in many senses, Australia, too.
Combe credited Don Dunstan with having done more for the advancement of aboriginal rights, justice and welfare than any other Australian leader, including the push to expunge the notion of “assimilation” from both the thinking and the vocabulary of politics.
Noting that Gough Whitlam, at Dunstan’s funeral, made a similar observation, Combe said “It was the most modest speech I ever heard Gough make.”
A close relative in Labor’s “awakening” was its ditching, finally, of the White Australia policy, another Dunstan mission.
Combe was a first-hand witness and contributor to Dunstan’s reforms which, as they always do in the Labor Party, started with the reform of the party, itself. Just as Whitlam had needed to do before presenting a credible alternative to the electorate. Just as Anthony Albanese might need to do, all these years later.
When Labor first won government in South Australia in 1965, under Frank Walsh, Don Dunstan became Attorney General, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister for Social Services. Dunstan wanted to hire Combe to his office. There was no provision for ministerial staff in those days; Ministers were provided with staff from the public service.
At the time, Combe was on a management trainee program with Shell (no connection to his filling tanks at a service station). To join Dunstan’s staff, he needed to win a job in the state bureaucracy. The SA Public Service was chaired at the time by a parishioner at the Anglican Church in Glenelg, where Combe had sung in the choir. Combe speculated that the job spec read: “Tall, slightly chubby, masses of black curly hair, deep voice and buck teeth.”
Dunstan replaced Walsh as Premier mid-term but lost the subsequent election, in 1968. Fortuitously, the Secretary of the SA ALP had won a seat at the same election. The only other head office staff member, the organiser, Mick Young, was promoted to Secretary.
In a ground-breaking battle between the “new” and the “old” in Labor, Combe replaced Young as organiser, becoming the first ever appointment to the SA head office from outside the ranks of trade union officials.
A year later, Mick Young moved to Canberra as National Secretary of the ALP and Combe became SA Secretary, in 1969, at the age of 26: a scholarship boy from a private school.
In 1973, Combe, again, succeeded Mick Young, becoming the youngest National Secretary in the party’s history, at the age of 30. He’d already had five years as a party official in SA and the best part of three years on Dunstan’s staff.
Within a year, he was required to resource and direct a national election campaign, just 18 months after Labor had won government in 1972 under Gough Whitlam, its first victory in 23 years.
In May 1974 Whitlam retained government at a double dissolution, forced on him by the Senate, becoming the first Labor leader to win consecutive elections. Combe was buoyed, but the ALP campaign coffers were drained.
Just 18 months later, public goodwill proved to be drained, too, when Labor was sent to another general election, dismissed from office by the Queen’s representative, Sir John Kerr, and trounced at the polls in December 1975.
The “Iraqi Donations” affair from that time (before every scandal had the suffix “gate” attached to it)? Not to be confused with the earlier Khemlani Loans Affair, which had nothing at all to do with Combe, this one involved a mooted gift of election campaign funds from the Ba’ath Socialist Party of Iraq.
No money ever reached the ALP’s coffers. Nobody was charged with anything. Nobody knows the truth of who asked for or suggested or ran off with what, with most of the speculation focussed on the mysterious intermediary, Henri Fischer, who seems to have turned double agent and sold his story to Rupert Murdoch.
Suffice to say, it happened in an era of different attitudes to political funding. And different attitudes to Saddam Hussein, a central figure in the Ba’ath Party who, at the time, enjoyed some international respect and credibility. So did people like Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, long before they fell from grace in their own countries, or in world opinion.
Nonetheless, it damaged all involved: Combe, Whitlam, another Labor figure, Bill Hartley. And in the eyes of many, including Combe, Whitlam and most Labor supporters: Rupert Murdoch, who plumbed new depths in exercising proprietorial privilege in pursuit of partisan politics.
Combe, Whitlam and Murdoch all “survived” the episode.
Those were roller-coaster times for the ALP. Combe, having overseen two elections in his first two years in the job, then directed two more national campaigns in the ensuing five years: the desultory, demoralised performance of 1977, where Labor regained virtually no ground from its catastrophic loss in 1975; and the substantially better result under Bill Hayden in 1980, which laid the platform for Bob Hawke’s victory three years later.
Combe brought to his eight years in the national role a finely developed perspective on the intricacies, inter-relationships and inconsistencies of the Labor Party, not least the significant and historical differences between each of its state branches.
While Mick Young before him had more spectacular electoral success at a national level, Combe professionalised the national secretariat beyond recognition, creating the administrative and financial foundations from which many of his successors helped engineer victories for Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard.
Not least of these was the purchase of John Curtin House, which became home to the party’s national HQ in the Canberra suburb of Barton. Combe formalised and solidified commercial relationships with the advisors that political parties rely on – advertising agencies (Forbes Macfie Hansen), pollsters (ANOP’s Rod Cameron), media advisors (Tony Ferguson), the producers of broadcast material (Stuart Littlemore and Bruce Allen).
The party’s national conferences became public showpieces rather than the closed-door mysteries they had been in the past, vulnerable to media and opposition lampooning.
Starting in SA, and then from Canberra, he did more than any other party official before him – perhaps since – to deconstruct the mummified machinery of the Labor Party. It remains a work in progress.
After four national election campaigns in eight years, Combe left his role with the ALP in mid-1981, setting up a political consultancy. He was rightly regarded as being well placed and connected with Bob Hawke’s government when it took office in early 1983. ASIO agreed, concerned that Combe’s dealings with the Russian Embassy in Canberra posed a risk to Australia’s security.
There were people from both sides of politics irked that Combe, apparently, had been talking up his prospects of big earnings from facilitating trade deals with the Russians. He never struck me that way but, regardless of what he said about it, he was merely among the first in a very long field of former party officials, staffers and MPs – from Premiers down – who made significant sums in the years that followed, representing corporations and business groups, as well as “foreign interests”. On a modest scale, I did it myself!
In April 1983, armed with ASIO’s advice, Hawke’s Cabinet decided to expel Soviet diplomat, Valery Ivanov, and forbid Ministers from dealing with Combe. ASIO had tapped Combe’s phone and selected transcripts were splashed all over the front pages of Australia’s newspapers, ahead of the entire matter being referred to an already established Royal Commission into Australia’s security intelligence.
Disclosure: one of the more lurid ASIO transcripts involved a phone call between Combe and me on a matter of no relevance to national security. My greatest source of embarrassment remains the inordinate and casual use of expletives which peppered our conversation.
The Hope Royal Commission found that while the Russians had targeted Combe as a potential agent of influence, there was no proof of intelligence breaches or of any threat to national security.
The episode ended Combe’s career as a lobbyist, although it can be credited with prompting the government to establish a register of lobbyists and, on the recommendation of the Royal Commission, to implement protocols for better oversight of ASIO.
Ironically, Mick Young, by then a cabinet member, was also a temporary casualty, accused of leaking the April cabinet decision to a journalist. He was stood down from the ministry in July 1983 and reinstated in January the following year.
It was all high theatre, but Combe never forgave Hawke and Hawke never retreated from his view that he had no choice but to act as he did, cynical and opportunistic as some saw it. The Attorney General at the time, Gareth Evans, later expressed his regret to Combe. The ALP’s National Conference in 1984 passed a motion specifically restoring Combe to favoured-son status for his service to the party.
It did little to assuage Combe’s feelings of betrayal and bitterness. Already an informed and vocal supporter of civil liberties, he pursued for the rest of his life a deep concern about the role of intelligence agencies in politics, and the inter-relationships between our “spooks” and those of our powerful allies in the United States.
In this, he was gratified to see his phobias and cynicism shared by many – including former Prime Minister, Paul Keating – who have been exposed at senior levels to the operations of Australia’s “intelligence” community.
The 1984 olive branch from the ALP allowed Combe to move on, professionally at least, and his undoubted talents, energy and intellect were recognised with his appointment in 1985 as Australia’s senior trade commissioner in Western Canada. He served in a similar role in Hong Kong from 1990 to 1991.
Perfectly leveraging his knowledge of both wine and international trade, Combe then joined Penfolds (soon to become part of Southcorp), first in Hong Kong, before running the company’s European operations from London. He was enticed to Southcorp by the then boss of SA Brewing (one of Southcorp’s component parts, along with Lindeman’s and Penfolds), Ross Wilson, who Combe regarded as the best leader he ever worked for, bar none.
He returned to Sydney, with Southcorp, in 1995, as Senior Vice-President International and ran its entire export operation. His time with Southcorp coincided with the great flowering of Australian wine’s popularity overseas, with the annual value of Southcorp’s own exports increasing from $40 million in 1991 to $300 million in 2000.
In 2000 he was named Australia’s Top Export Salesman by Overseas Trading magazine and was included in the list of “Twenty-Five Most Influential Australians in Asia” published by Business Asia magazine.
His time with Austrade and in the international wine business showcased Combe’s intuitive and learned understandings of marketing, promotion, distribution and people management. And, again, his energy and natural charm as a networker.
Nobody who knew him would be surprised that the value of Southcorp’s export earnings increased nearly tenfold on his watch. He would have thrown as much energy and brainpower into marshalling a campaign to sell wine to the French as he did to selling Labor to the Australian people, and with better results!
Leaving Southcorp in 2001, he served as a non-executive director for the Western Australian wine producer Evans and Tate, and as Chairman of Simon Gilbert Wines.
Thus, although after the mid-eighties, for more than 30 years, Combe pretty much disappeared from the Australian political scene, he made new friends and impressed new people.
Despite what he saw as his hurt at the hands of the Labor Party back in 1983, he remained in close contact with many prominent Labor figures including former federal minister and High Commissioner to London, Neal Blewett and former Opposition Leader, Foreign Minister and Governor General, Bill Hayden. Combe felt the latter’s place in Labor history has been under-written.
I first met David Combe in Canberra in 1974. Years later, I was reminded by him of the date: 21 February, the day his second son, Solomon, was born. I was working for the Australia Party, a fledgling centre-left outfit (forerunner to the Democrats) whose preferences had helped Labor over the line in 1972. The Australia Party’s founder, Gordon Barton, its campaign director, Fergus McPherson and I had met with Combe to discuss preferences at the upcoming election. Combe left the meeting to go to Canberra Hospital for Solomon’s birth, then hooked up with us again at one of the all-night parties common in Canberra in that era.
Many of the party-goers were morning newspaper journalists who, then, didn’t have to clock on until 2.00pm the next day. Those of us who hung around till 4.00am, pretending we were peddling influence, required unusual stamina to front our “day jobs” at 8.00am. Combe had it.
By the standards of the day, he was young. He was also uncomplicated, straightforward, enthusiastic, with a cheerful and unaffected demeanour. And he loved a laugh.
Combe and I went on to work on the same side in election campaigns for the rest of the seventies. There are few better bonding mechanisms – an opportunity to swap yarns – than over a few drinks after a day on the hustings, mid-winter, in Launceston (Bass by-election, June 1975).
As Combe liked to point out, his Alma Mater, Prince Alfred, had also produced the cricketing Chappells – Ian, Greg and Trevor.
Combe was an “educated” cricket tragic and all-round sports follower, especially of the Glenelg Australian Rules team – The Tigers – in the South Australian competition. I snuck an afternoon off with him just prior to an ALP National Conference in Adelaide in 1980, to stand on the hill at a suburban ground, watching The Tigers.
As was the quaint habit in Aussie Rules, the spectators were allowed onto the ground after the game, for “kick to kick”. I’d never seen Combe do a minute’s exercise in his life and it showed. His co-ordination as a campaigner far exceeded what he had in the eye/hand department: he was an air-swinger; neither his mitts nor his feet connected with the pigskin.
No matter, driving back to the hotel, he took a detour past the stables of legendary horse trainer, Bart Cummings, to show me with great pride where 1979 Melbourne Cup winner, Hyperno, was in residence.
It was about then I realised why I liked him so much: proud of everything about his State, even though Hyperno was a Kiwi. Notwithstanding, as he’d point out, South Australia never producing a Prime Minister, a Governor General or a High Court Judge.
We had some business associations, later (see the ASIO tapes!), and made several property investments together. He always behaved with complete grace, courtesy, good humour, integrity and decency; generous and engaging.
Even under enormous pressure. He was sometimes saddened, but never crushed, including in his personal life, where he was pressure-tested, too. One of his four sons, Abe, took his own life, aged 20. The 1968 marriage to his first wife, Meena Blesing, strained by the dramas of life in politics, as so many are, eventually dissolved. A second son, Nep, in his adulthood, also took his own life, in 2017, just at the time David was first diagnosed with cancer.
In later years David fought and conquered an alcohol problem (another product of politics?) and had his last drink more than a decade ago.
After leaving Southcorp in 2001 he did a little consulting, managed some investments and took an active role as a board member of an NDIS registered disability organisation with a commitment to empowering people.
But mostly he devoted himself to starting a family with his new partner, Maggie Gilchrist, a former journalist, art critic and curator, now a writer, who he’d met in London in 1995. They married in New Zealand in 2001.
After unsuccessful efforts to have children together, including the stillbirth of a daughter in 1999, they made a protracted and ultimately frustrated attempt through the NSW Department of Community Services, as it was then, to adopt a child from China. They next found themselves dealing with an orphanage in Azerbaijan.
The backstory to this and their eventual success – an Australian “first” – in bringing a one-year-old and a three-year-old to a new life on the northern beaches of Sydney is, again, testament to Combe’s determination, resourcefulness, tenacity and intuitive understanding of how to navigate the tortuously winding path of politics and bureaucracy. Not to mention Maggie’s. Many would have given up. Those who’ve faced the challenge of adopting children from overseas will empathise.
Son, Orkhan, and daughter, Madina, are now 19 and 17 respectively. They, Maggie, along with David’s first wife Meena and sons, Barney and Sol, and grandchildren Jason and Laura, survive David, as does his Canada based sister, Gay.
Many others who knew him better and for longer than I did, also attest to Combe’s open-ness, respectfulness, a gregarious and deeply intellectual persona, an ability to listen and to make people feel that they mattered, a capacity for great kindness.
And a love of music, which he imparted to others not least through his own impressive singing voice, trained in the choir back in Glenelg. He could not have been prouder that daughter, Madina, is pursuing an aspiration to be an opera singer.
For more than most, the twists and turns in David Combe’s life and career demanded courage and resilience of him and he displayed those qualities, consistently and in abundance. He was a product of the Labor movement and a servant to it, motivated by strongly held beliefs in individual rights and Australia’s potential as a more caring, compassionate and independent nation.
Politics is an unforgiving business where judgements and the superficial public verdict can be based on isolated incidents, in the broader scheme of things, obscuring an individual’s other qualities and achievements.
Along with the pain of mourning his departure, I’m confident the many who knew him share with me the pleasure of counting David Combe as a good friend, a fine quality human being, and one of the smartest people you’d ever meet.
Before he died, Combe asked me to write his obituary. I’d already thought of the idea. I said I’d show him a draft. He said not to bother: he wouldn’t presume to edit a thing. Regardless, a week before he died, I read it to him, at his bedside. He was compos enough to indicate he thought it was fine.
My thanks to Richard Butler for his counsel in helping me prepare this for Pearls and Irritations.
Richard Whitington was a publicist for the Australia Party from 1969 to 1974, a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977, and worked at the ALP’s advertising agency, Forbes Macfie Hansen from 1977 to 1981. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment, he retired earlier this year to do some freelance writing. Website: richardwhitington.com