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True-life spy comics for Christmas


Whitey’s transfixed by the vinous possibilities of the China intrigue.

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Yeah, yeah, Christmas time, write something nice about what goes with pudding?

Not this year. This is the year of the spy comics. You can drink nearly anything with a spy comic. Pour yourself a big one.

Given the great care he takes over surveillance issues, Senator Sam Dastyari is obviously not the sort of person you’d find deliberately hanging out with enemy spooks. But it’s hardly breakfast (Monday) and already we have the Minister for Immigration calling the poor fellow a “double agent” having followed into the fanging throng none other than Linda Burney.

They’ve been baying about it maybe getting closer to the time Sam started to think more or less along the lines of another job of work sort of thing and, yes, he has announced his resignation today.

It seems that ALP allegiance to mates ain’t quite what it once was.

I can’t help thinking of David Combe.

With the support of new national Labor hero Don Dunstan, Combe, after graduating from the University of Adelaide, became the youngest ever secretary of the Australian Labor Party. That curly-haired boy was soon a supremely influential lobbyist with close entwinements to the government of Bob e.

Intrigue? They’d hardly got over the Khemlani Affair where Whitlam lost government after a botched Middle Eastern loans scandal involving the Adelaide developer Gerry Karidis. No sooner had Combe and his wife got home from an unrelated trip to the USSR in 1982 than ASIO nudged the new PM, Hawke, to warn him that it thought Combe may have been compromised by a Soviet citizen with KGB links; Hawke expelled Valery Ivanov, the First Secretary for the USSR Embassy in Canberra, whom Combe knew. The Hope Royal Commission reported that while the Soviets had indeed targeted Combe it found no proof of security threats or intelligence breaches.

Proper Royal Commission, see? That shits on this Sam gossip lite. Get over it, jerks.

This great business seemed largely to unfold at the front table of Peter Doyle’s Watson’s Bay restaurant on Sydney Harbour, where the Hawke cabinet made lunchtime deals, drank buckets of Pike’s Clare Riesling and ate Australia’s most expensive fish ‘n’ chips. I watched it.

Bob, of course, was teetotal. He stayed away. I was living in the convicts’ quarters in Peter’s backyard in his old South Head harbourmaster’s house, complete with shackle rings in the stone at my bed head. The only rent he’d accept was advice with the wine list and the disposal of the pallets of empties that came out the tail of every mad lunch. He bought a glass grinder.

He’d fire up his tinny first thing in the mornings and putter across the harbour with the right bait and tack to pick up Hawkie and take him to where he knew he would catch a fish or two.

I’d be nose down editing Wine and Spirit across the harbour and Doyle would be on the phone at noon. “Front table. Everyone’s in. Got you a chair.” Water taxi. Madness. We enjoyed a different level of lobbying.

After a couple of Trade Commissions (Western Canada and Hong Kong), Combe took over the international side of Southcorp and Penfolds and through the ’90s carefully led Australia’s upmarket charge into the export arena. He understood it. He designed it. And he really got China.

Later, he spent years consulting to the top wine industry outfits and firms. He did huge business.

Sam is obviously reasonably aware of the power of China. Let’s say more than most. Now, I’d just like to remind him that there are wonderful opportunities out there for people who are respected by great governments like China.

Twenty years back I drew much stinky incoming for suggesting that by now Australia would be using the Murray-Darling water for food and importing its bladder pack grape ethanol from China. While this has yet to occur, China seems to now be the world’s biggest grape grower: its volume of made wine is close to Australia’s and ballooning. It has also barged into the discount bins of London with its Great Wall bottled wines.

We’d best be out of that. A country with no water can’t sell its irrigated wine at the price of bottled water when a litre of wine needs like 1200 litres of water.

While it has access to the north half of the Himalaya and there’s snow left to melt, China has access to an astonishing array of geologies with endless free water at dial-up altitudes. It can grow very good grapes.

So far, the wine industry has managed to stay right out of contentious China issues like Tibet, human rights, press and internet freedom, nuclear war or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. While it depends upon China for so many export millions, and has even learned to use both chopsticks in one hand, the Australian wine sector seems hardly aware that anything could ever possibly go wrong.

Easier by far for wine exporters to remain bedazzled by their 42 per cent growth there in the last year’s trade, reaching $853 million: nearly twice the income taken in Australia’s next biggest export market, the USA.

(Enter topiarised hole in the air the shape of the President. He’ll keep everything stable, won’t he.)

One can hardly blame our winemakers for going in so far: politicians push them. But in South Australia in particular the rollover to Chinese investment, in wine, in anything, seems a misunderstood and mismarketed alien invasion in itself. We haven’t even settled how much colonial Australia owes the originals for what we’re still stealing from them.

China won’t be paying them any more than it’ll be paying Tibet. The Chinese are a mercantile people with some 6000 years in business. They’ll run wine like they run tea.

Since they’ve been buying châteaux in Bordeaux and bits of Burgundy vineyard, China has a new level of very wine-aware investors and obsessives. They now really know the value of things vinous.

Of recent Chinese investors in my neck of the woods, however, there’s not been many possessing this unusual awareness and patience. Jeez it’s embarrassing begging your bank manager for the money to buy out your brand new Chinese investor so everything can go back to normal and you get some cashflow.

There’ve not been too many top-level Chinese investors. is what I mean. Not since George and Roland Lau, at least. They were the first Chinese investors I knew in McLaren Vale. Southern Vales, 1980. Father and son. Elegant gentlemen both. They bought in.

Most recently, the taxpayer has bought some attention from the celebrity

Huang Xiaoming, who said:South Australia is a place where you can enjoy breath-taking natural scenery, meet the local wildlife, and experience world-class vineyards and food to enjoy the best of Australia.”

Anyway, Sam, speaking as wildlife, I sent you a poem about how we’ve all gotta concentrate on being a better Elvis. To that end, I can think of little better than having a chap of your background sitting there wherever you are, dreaming of all that fun David had, increasing his employer’s export number from $40 million to $300 million in 10 short years.

We need somebody who really appreciates the finesse and respect required in dealing with China. You speak Mandarin, don’t you?

We used to have Dunstans, Hawkes and Combes. Now we have Sam Dastyari.

In the USA, Republicans have Russia. In Australia, everybody has China.

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