“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





13 December 2017


Under deep cover: Senator Sam Dastyari impersonates The King at the Parkes Elvis Festival in January ... Sam was not only the first Elvis impersonator to get the job but he was also the youngest person ever to become the secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party, considered a rare thing for a China expert with such an eye for product placement

Fill your glass for the China intrigue: true life spy comics for Christmas 

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, Iranian-born Australian Senator Sam Dastyari is obviously not the sort of person you'd find deliberately hanging out with enemy spooks. But it was hardly breakfast on Monday and already we had the Minister for Immigration, having followed into the fanging throng none other than Linda Burney, calling the poor fellow a "double agent."

Because of his China thing, they're baying about how it's maybe getting closer to the time Sam started to think more or less along the lines of another job of work. Which has pushed him to promise to leave the Senate after Christmas. 

ALP allegiance to mates ain't quite what it was. 

I can't help thinking of David Combe. 

David Combe at 40, by Keith Looby, 1983 - National Portrait Gallery

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 Hawke. 

Intrigue? Labor'd hardly got over the Khemlani Affair where Whitlam lost government after a botched loans scandal involving the Adelaide developer Gerry Karidis who introduced the Pakistani freelance Tirath Khemlani who looked like he had a pipeline to a great big pile of money in Iraq or somewhere. 

By Whitlam's demise, the election was entwined in rumours about CIA interference to protect Pine Gap from the Unions: it was a total mess. 

After Malcolm Fraser's Liberals had an easy trot, Labor got right back up. 

But 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 quite rightfully 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. I lived 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. 

Hawkie, of course, was teetotal. He stayed away. But Peter would climb on his favourite wee tender in the mornings after the fishmarket and putter across the harbour with the right bait and tack to pick the PM up and take him to where he knew he would catch a fish or two in the quiet. 

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 'nineties carefully led Australia's upmarket charge into the wine 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.  Deep intelligence helps, see?

Sam is obviously reasonably aware of the power of China. Let's say more than most. Now while he digs in over his mid-morning coffee and I swap posh Chardonnays, 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 - for the Shoppies - from China. While this has yet to occur, it's closer: China seems suddenly to be the world's biggest grape grower. A few years behind in production, its volume of made wine is close to Australia's and ballooning. It has also quite literally 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 1,200 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, miraculously, the Australian 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 awkwardly 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, yet here we are pant pant panting to get somebody else to take it off our hands. 

China won't be paying the original austral nations any more than it'll be paying Tibet. The Chinese are a mercantile people with some 6,000 years in business. They'll run wine like they run tea.  And of course they remember stuff. Like when the Brits refused to pay them for tea in any currency other than opium and then stole the tea anyway to grow their own in Ceylon. To many Chinese tea merchants, that was only last year.

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 who no longer need supplies or advice from British Masters of Wine. They won't be naively setting any more triumphant records for great vintages at auction. As owners, Chinese people are learning the true value of things vinous. 

I don't see too many Australians buying châteaux in Bordeaux. 

Of recent Chinese investors in my neck of the woods, on the other hand, 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 cash flow. There've not been too many top-level Chinese investors is what I mean. 

Not since George and Roland Lau, at least. Not in my blue-eyed colonial ken. They were the first Chinese investors I knew in McLaren Vale. Southern Vales, 1980. Father and son. Elegant and humorous gentlemen both. They bought in. 

Most recently, the taxpayer has bought some expensive casheous  attention from the celebrity Huang Xiaoming who in return  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 ten 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, Trump's Republicans have Russia. In Australia, everybody has China.

Early Oz wine drive into China: the author with Morgan and Dennis Vice consulting with the mayor of Yangzhou in 2002 ... Mr Zhou, on my right, was a brilliant interpreter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr Whitey you're too far out there ... that's the young Xi Jinping isn't it