Skip to main content

David Combe and the portrait
, 1983

by Keith Looby

oil on canvas (frame: 220.0 x 190.0 cm, support: 211.5 x 181.0 cm)

David Combe (b. 1943) was formerly National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party. Born and educated in Adelaide, he became interested in politics at university and joined the ALP partly through his friendship with Don Dunstan. After serving as its unusually youthful secretary from 1973 to 1981, he formed a Canberra consultancy, providing business and political advice and lobbying. In the early 1980s Combe was central to the major political scandal known as the 'Combe-Ivanov affair'. From 1985 to 1991 he was a senior trade commissioner in Canada and then in Hong Kong. Senior Vice President of Southcorp Wines from 1991 to 2000, he is credited with establishing that company's enormous export operations. Between 2001 and 2007 he held corporate positions with Evans and Tate Ltd and Simon Gilbert Wines Ltd; he has been Patron of the Don Dunstan Foundation since 2004.

The so-called 'Combe-Ivanov affair' developed out of a trip Combe and his wife made to the USSR in 1982, in the course of preparations for which they met and developed a relationship with the First Secretary for the USSR, Valeriy Ivanov. Soon after the formation of the Hawke government ASIO raised concerns that Combe, closely aligned to the ALP, may be being 'cultivated' by a Soviet citizen with KGB links. Ivanov was expelled from Australia in 1983. The highly publicised events were investigated by the Hope Royal Commission into Australia's security and intelligence agencies of 1983-1984, which found that Combe had indeed been targeted by the Soviets. Though he was cleared of suspicion of spying, Combe, said Bob Hawke, had been compromised, and 'understood and accepted' that government ministers could no longer deal with him as a lobbyist.

This portrait was tipped to win the Archibald Prize of 1983, but just before the announcement of the Prize the judges opted for another. David Combe said in 1998 that there was 'circumstantially a good case to believe that some trustees were heavied by the Party' into rejecting the work, but this is an idea that those trustees - including a former union leader - have repudiated. Keith Looby won the award the following year with a portrait of satirist Max Gillies.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of David Combe 1998
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 1998.28