August 2006

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

David Combe & Valery Ivanov

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

When Labor won the 1983 election, David Combe thought he had it made. As ALP national secretary he’d put the party apparatus on a professional footing, secured its finances and paved the way for Bob Hawke’s eventual victory. Now a commercial lobbyist, the lifetime Labor insider was to be the indispensable go-to man for corporations wanting to do business with the new government.

Quick to congratulate him was the first secretary at the Soviet embassy. At 31, Valery Ivanov was young for the job, his first diplomatic posting. The homesick Muscovite arrived at Combe’s house on the day after the election bearing champagne and cigars.

The two men had met a year earlier at an Australia–USSR Friendship Society cocktail party at the Canberra Labor Club. Combe was a prominent member of the society, alert to lucrative trade prospects with Russia. Ivanov was working his diplomatic beat. Over the following months, the stiff, humourless envoy began assiduously to cultivate the Billy Bunterish would-be entrepreneur.

All the while, ASIO was watching. A high-level Soviet defector to Britain had fingered Ivanov as KGB. To the guardians of national security, long lacking a public triumph, the lobbyist was bait to catch a spy. Unknowingly, Combe was riding for a fall

If Combe guessed Ivanov’s true role, he wasn’t much fussed. His business was influence, not intelligence. He had no secrets, and his Labor friends were in power. Theirs was a business relationship, open and above board.

Two weeks into Hawke’s tenure, the nation’s secret police chief advised the new PM that one of his old mates was being cultivated by a foreign power. “Classic” signs of “disinformation” and “clandestinity” had been detected. Hidden microphones had recorded Combe explaining the term “jobs for the boys”. Tellingly, he was known to be “anti-American”.

Without further ado, Combe was hung out to dry, denied access, cold-shouldered. Ivanov was expelled. In the ensuing brouhaha, a royal commission was called. After months of testimony, it cleared Combe, absolved the government and exonerated ASIO.

His livelihood in tatters, Combe was eventually eased into the post of Australian trade commissioner in Vancouver. After that, he became an international wine consultant.

Of Ivanov, less is known. The surname is not uncommon. The KGB is officially defunct and its former members are difficult to trace. But a certain Valery Ivanov serves on the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and National Security of the Republic of Belarus. He looks older, of course, but the physical similarity is unmistakable. And the job seems tailor-made for one of the boys.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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