David Williamson on plays, priorities and pandemics


Published on

David Williamson, Australia's best-loved and most prolific playwright is retiring after 50 years.

Typically writing a play every 12 months, this year he has been busy with his memoir. His most famous plays are The Club, The Removalists, Don's Party and Emerald City. Performances of his most recent plays, Crunch Time and Family Matters, were cut short by the pandemic.

He says while he feels blessed with a dream run of great productions, great directors and audiences still coming in numbers, there are also a lot of pressures in playwriting, a great deal of hard work, stress and feeling exposed. He's now happy to spend time with family - five children and 14 grandchildren - enjoying life out of the spotlight.

david williamson playwright

What was your first job?
My first professional job, as the first mechanical engineering graduate from Monash University, was at General Motors (GM), in the drafting office as a trainee design engineer. It was something I really had no interest - or aptitude - in and both GM and I realised I was in the wrong place. I went on and taught engineering, but anything practical I had no interest in. I was much more interested in human beings and needed to know why we behaved in such odd ways. I went back to uni and studied psychology. I was also writing for the stage - I had to choose and luckily the plays started to take off at that time.

What's the best money advice you've received?
Start a super fund - this was from a Melbourne accountant, back in 1985. He said there were real tax advantages in starting a fund and I'm glad I did because I think that anyone who started a super fund back then should have a statue of [former Treasurer] Peter Costello on their mantelpiece because he brought in the most advantageous super tax in the world (during the '90s), I think, for those who had a bit of money. My accountant was a smart guy.

What's the best investment decision you've made?
My brother-in-law offered me the opportunity to buy an underpriced commercial property in Noosa, so for the next 16 or so years I was a co-owner of a big commercial building let out to tenants. It brought a rate of return double anything else I was getting.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?
Buying a holiday house at the height of the holiday house boom and then realising that in financial crises the first thing to deflate is boats and holiday houses.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on? 
Dining out, which is why we live in Noosa. My wife Kristen says she did the cooking for her first husband and wasn't going to do it again for me.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?
A lot of people are just putting it in a tin can under their bed. I don't understand why the stockmarket is booming, so I'd be hesitant to put it there. I don't think you can make money out of money. Maybe I should put it in gold or international shares ... I couldn't believe US shares would boom given the crisis. I think I'd buy a cellarfull of wine 
and consume it.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance? 
Yes, with five kids and 14 grandkids, the bank of mum and dad is the only way forward for the next generation. The least we can do is help the next generation a little bit [because they] have Buckley's hope of getting into the property market. When I got my first job, after a couple of years I could buy a reasonable house for about 21/2 years' salary. Now our kids need to pay nine times or more to even think of getting into a house; it's an impossible situation. 
Several of your plays feature money in a big way. Which play is the most pertinent today? 
I think my very last play, Crunch Time, based on a real situation: a father who wanted to hand his successful business to two sons equally but it didn't happen. The sons were at each other's throats - the play wasn't about money, it was about sibling rivalry and end-of-life issues. But the allocation of money, vis-a-vis which of the children gets it, can be a very divisive issue in a family. It can be explosive.

Would you like to see any changes with the way people look at money after COVID-19?
I hope there will be a rethink of the mantra that economic growth is the only important thing and instead do what is good for the planet and what is good for society. I don't think huge levels of inequality are good for any society. The sooner we put redistribution on the political map, without people shrieking class warfare, we'll be a better society.

Finish this sentence: money buys ...
... status and temporary feelings of elation, but it can't buy you what is essential to have: true friends, true companionship and true family bonds.

Get stories like this in our newsletters.

Related Stories

Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.