Anything But with Tim Wilson

In this extended version of Anything But, an interview series published on The Brief, Julia Baird discusses superheroes, broken hearts and letterboxes, with Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson.

When Tim Wilson was appointed Human Rights Commissioner in February, many were gobsmacked. A forceful advocate of libertarianism and a liberal conservative who had worked as policy director at the Institute of Public Affairs for several years, Wilson was quickly dubbed the Freedom Commissioner. His own website describes him as “one of Australia’s most challenging opinion makers drawing on strong philosophical principles, backed up with evidence while maintaining a real-world edge. Passionate. Controversial. Fearless.” Chances are you’ve seen him on Q and A or The Drum arguing, often provocatively, with a uniquely buoyant style. We tried to speak about everything but politics – and freedom. Instead, we talked about superheroes, broken hearts and letterboxes.

What is your greatest annoyance?

Time wasting. I just … it’s, it makes me infuriated. It’s up there with bureaucratic incompetence. If you ever want to see me angry, really angry, and it takes me a while to come down from it, you know, going to an airport check-in desk and they say they haven’t got your flight because someone seven days ago didn’t press some bloody button on a computer somewhere, and it’s just as much corporate bureaucracy as it is public bureaucracy, it drives me insane. I would never survive in England, because I despise queues. Like, if I’m going to a place where they’re serving food, like in a food court, if the queue is more than about one or two people deep, I’d rather go hungry. That’s how much I intensely dislike them.

If you were to be an action hero, which one would you like to be?

I think I’m going to have to go Batman, but not like Christian Bale, über-cool Batman, much more 1960s, soul, Adam West Batman. You know, a little bit camp, prepared to go out there and fight for a good cause, and occasionally enjoy a good outfit from time to time. Though I don’t slip into the Batsuit. The equivalent I’ve got, you know, from looking at today, is a grey suit with a green checked shirt and a blue and green dot tie, but you have to take these things a little bit seriously if you want to live your life and achieve things, so the outfit makes sense as well. But you can’t discount the campness factor behind Adam West’s Batman, because it’s important to have almost a cartoonish approach where every time you’re achieving some objective it’s sort of a “Pow” or a “Gazump” as part of the process.

That outfit you’re describing, though, that sounds a little more Joker to me than a slick Batman.

That’s a good point! I just need the makeup to go with it, and I might be able to pull it off.

And in an unrelated question: How many times have you been in love?

I’m in love at the moment with my amazing partner, Ryan, who I’ve been in love with now for what, good golly, actually this is terrible, we’re about to come up to our sixth anniversary in five days. I know, it’s great! Six years, going strong. But, I have fallen in love twice before then, and fallen out of love as well, so, one of which was particularly painstaking, but in the end people come in and out of your life at different times and for different reasons, and of course love is something that has to be mutually enjoyed, so, such is the way of things. Unrequited love can take a … can leave scars and take a while to get over, and I don’t seek that opportunity again. And of course with something like love, everybody’s after the sort of, like, postcard beautiful imagery of it, but in practice it’s something that has to evolve over time, and you always live in this perpetual state of fear of “what if that was the one, and there’ll never be anybody else who I will come across”, and of course that is absurd, but that’s how you feel at the time, because you feel vulnerable and scared.


Right. Tell me what item of clothing you feel best in.

I actually hate wearing suits and ties and all those sorts of corporate or public bureaucratic wear. I actually love wearing a daggy pair of jeans, a really crass, ill-fitting polo and a pair of thongs, meaning the sandal-type wear, not what Americans would call thongs. And my partner hates me wearing thongs with jeans. Because it’s sort of like – make a commitment. It’s either too hot for jeans, so you have to wear shorts and thongs, or it’s too cold for thongs, so you have to wear jeans and shoes or something like that, whereas I just love that combination because there’s a bit of “I really can’t be bothered, I really can’t be stuffed, I am relaxing, and whatever anybody else thinks doesn’t really matter to me”.

Tim, do you have a personal motto in life?

I think if I reflected on my life, it’s “never stand still and never be predictable”. And I don’t know if I achieve the second one, I think for a lot of people, scarily I do achieve the second one even though I think I’m scarily predictable on one level, but certainly never standing still, I don’t like doing that. I’m one of those people who has to get up and run around and constantly be doing something. And one of those kids in school who was always a fidgeter and couldn’t help himself.

What do you think would happen if you stood still?

I get bored, but it’s, it goes back to the first question, which was my greatest annoyance, time wasting, because time is the one scarce resource that each one of us has, and I just look at life and, you know, there’s a bit of “the world is there to be conquered and just take it”, and another part of it is, you want to be able to leave a legacy to the world in a way that has a footprint, which is you were here, and I think standing still doesn’t really contribute to that. You end up just consuming more than you end up giving.

Now you appear to be a rather robust extrovert, are you? Or do you have some introvert qualities as well?

I’m clearly an extrovert, but I’m actually, as I get older, much more comfortable with my own, in my own skin and by myself and thinking time is actually incredibly important to me, because I’m constantly thinking about positioning and issues and unpacking them and repacking them about why the world is the way it is, and where it can be, and drawing on the thinking of others, so, I wouldn’t put myself in one camp especially or the other, but I also don’t think that, as today demonstrates, I mind an audience at the same time.

You’ve got a lot on your plate at the moment, as the cliché goes. Where would you like to be in ten years’ time?

My entire life is just a series of accidents, and some people are really good at mapping out their career paths or their personal life paths, because there’s a certain linear path that can be achieved, whereas I can say with confidence that my life has never been like that. I started at university studying fine art painting. I then switched over to politics, then I went into looking at diplomacy, and then ended up in international aid, which is sort of allied, and then ended up working in a business around communications consulting, and there’s no logical path, you know. If you had’ve asked me two years ago, would I be human rights commissioner, which I know we’re not allowed to talk about work, but I would’ve said no, but this is where I’ve ended up, and then there’ll be something equally as disjointed, I suspect, appear at the end of this time. And the same is true of everything in life, there’s similar traits throughout my personal life as well. I guess I always just try and remain open and interested and engaged, and it takes me to strange and weird and wonderful places.

And also takes you to highly pressurised environments as well, where there’s a lot at stake. What do you do when you need to de-stress?

I could be all PC and say what you know people love me to say, which is that I have an apple and just have a sit down for ten minutes, but you know, normally it involves a degree of gin. I love gin, but anyway. I have come to like straight gin, but I actually quite like a good martini, but it’s not a requirement to de-stress. De-stressing is about spending time around my partner and just being in a comfortable and familiar and non-confrontational environment, because in a lot of my work over the years there’s always been a degree of confrontation. I’m confrontation comfortable, and that’s not a bad thing, but sometimes you kind of like it to just chill and relax. And the number one thing you can do to de-stress is just sleep, cause you just can’t beat it as an alternative to just get things out of your system and give it an opportunity to refresh.

What would you like to change about yourself?

Apart from the standard lose 20 kilos blah blah blah. Ever since I’ve been a kid, the one thing I’ve wanted is to be taller, because I’m sort of a pathetic 170cm, which is nothing. You’re tall – I always look at tall people and think “they just take it for granted, or they complain about it, because it’s harder to get certain types of clothes”, but I’ve always wanted to be just that little bit taller so that I’m a bit, I don’t know, I just think it would suit me better. But somebody once said, in the end everybody’s the same, it’s just how much of a compact package you have.

Well I wear heels when I’m on air, have you thought about cubans?

Ooh, tempting, tempting, I used to, I’m not going to lie, I used to wear my hair in a certain way so that it gave me a bit more lift, but I’ve sort of decided you can’t really do that any more since I’ve entered the respectable thirties.


What’s a battle you’ve given up fighting?

I don’t think I’ve ever given up a battle, I just wait until opportunities come along again. So there are lots of causes at different times that I’ve picked up and run with. They may not come to fruition, but I never see there’s an end point, um, because if it’s a just cause and it’s worth fighting for, then you’ll keep going regardless, when the new opportunity arises. Because a lot of causes require a window for it to be successful, and sometimes those windows come and go depending on the issues that may be around.

There are too many people who sort of want change in the world and think that they can just rush into it, and I’ve made that mistake myself, when in fact often, cultural change in society is slow to change, and that’s a fundamentally good thing, cause it means we don’t vacillate between extremes and what’s popular at any given moment, but you have to look at why society changes, and think about how, what you’re trying to achieve is framed in a way that people appreciate and get what you’re trying to achieve and that it’s in the best interests of society.

What for you is the definition of contentment, and what does it look like?

Contentment actually is knowing my partner Ryan, and knowing that he loves me, and that we actually have a really good bond, and that we have a really great relationship, and that in the end, there are so many other things in our personal and professional life that can give you a certain degree of contentment, but that’s the enduring part. Particularly when you have a spontaneous and far-flung life sometimes, as mine is, you need that sense of support and security and to be able to rely on that makes a big difference.

What about an actual moment? Would it be sitting and having a martini with Ryan?

Yeah, it might be that, and looking at the ocean, that gives me contentment, cause it just sort of brings nature back into the frenetic pace of life. I used to live in the CBD of Melbourne, and I loved it, but it was frenetic, and actually nature these days gives me a very calming sense, and life, and so I like to spend time in parks and gardens and near the ocean, just to give the sense of calm in an otherwise manic life. I go down to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria a lot, because it has all of the good things in life. It has the ocean, it has hills, it has views, it has wine.

Okay I have some questions from the Twittersphere for you. Someone wanted to know your favourite novel or character in a novel.

Ooh. I’m one of those people who reads non-fiction a lot, and so fiction rarely comes up, but I have to say, I did love 1984, which I guess in one sense is kind of a fiction with a non-fiction theme. And Animal Farm, I mean George Orwell, not just a beautiful writer, but the capacity to engage people in a narrative about real and pressing issues about the world. I think he’s a true master in that regard, so that’s probably my favourite novel. But I confess that I’m not somebody who’s spent a lot of time reading literature.

What about a favourite movie or TV show, is there something you’re hooked on at the moment?

I’m going to confess, my all-time favourite TV show is The Simpsons, and I love every bit of it, from the wonderful old episodes everybody’s nostalgic for, to the more recent episodes which just seem to be about pumping out storylines to make money for 20th Century Fox and Rupert. It’s sort of odd, having grown up with The Simpsons, it came out on Australian television when I was 12, and pretty much my entire conscious teen years and throughout my twenties, it’s almost like a second family you feel familiar with. And because it can often reflect so many of the different attitudes and issues that exist within society, it can be hilarious even if, you know, I don’t think the writing is as deep as perhaps it used to be.

Can you tell me a particular episode you like, or a particular scene, when you think about how you love it?

I can’t remember which episode it is, but the one where Helen Lovejoy just says, oh sorry, is it Helen Lovejoy? Who says, “Won’t somebody please think about the children?” in an hysterical cry, and to me it’s just so emblematic of every part of society, where it’s just thinking “Who’s the victim?”, and then can’t we do something to protect them, and it pretty much justifies everything, and I just think it’s a brilliant observation on society. If you go past that, though. I love South Park, where there was that one episode about immigrant workers and people saying, “They’re stealing our jobs”, and the various silly colloquial alternatives to that, and how people sort of think that migrants are bad for the world and bad for jobs, which is just absurd. But now we’re entering into work space.

Of course, you’re not saying that children don’t deserve protection.

No, no, no, no, but it’s that sort of approach where people just love to say, “Won’t somebody think of the children” or whatever it is, you know, if you just throw the children in there, that justifies some sort of grand crusade to squash people’s liberties or try and stop things in society we don’t like. It’s almost the ill-considered dimension to it, of “just throw it out there” and hope that it will achieve your cause.

Okay, if you’re wondering if we’re going to cover the big issues today, the final two questions from the Twittersphere. The first is, “What’s your opinion on Vegemite and cheese sandwiches?”

Hate it. Hate it. Always hated Vegemite, always hated it. And my dad, sorry dad, used to have Vegemite and banana sandwiches, and it’s just … yuck. Just yuck. And, so, no, hate it.

Do you have a shape you prefer for letterboxes?

Actually, you know what, in front of me, literally got delivered today, a catalogue got delivered to my mailbox, which had different letterboxes. I’m looking at it right now, I’m not joking, I’m looking at it right now. And there is one that’s sort of like, a traditional house shape, where you’ve got the triangle on the top, and the box. And there’s one with the curved sort of box with the curved top, and then there’s another cool one, which is called coo-coo letter box, which is in the shape of a bird. And I think that’s pretty cool, but I’m not sure that I’m aspiring to any of these things. I used to deliver newspapers as a kid, and I used to hate just the square, boring letterboxes with the slit, because you can never get the newspapers in there. Whereas the round ones, you know, they might have the box, but then the cylindrical bit on the top, you could always put the newspaper in and so I’ve always got a soft spot for them for that reason.

You know, you surprise me, Tim.

Big issues!