Sir Ronald Darling Wilson (1922 – 2005)
Wilson had a battler’s start. He was born in Geraldton (a then small West Australian coastal country town). Although his father was a lawyer, his mother died when he was four, and his father was incapacitated with a stroke when he was seven, and his older brother (14) cared for him. Wilson left school at fourteen and became a court messenger at the Geraldton Local Court. He signed up for military service in 1941 with the army, transferred to the airforce and sent to England in 1942. After the war he studied law at the University of Western Australia, and then went on to be a Fullbright Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957 completing an MA. In 1969 he became Solicitor General of Western Australia. In 1979 he was appointed to the High Court of Australia. He was a moderate in politics, he was conservative in law, and yet a passionate champion of human rights, something that was at the core of him.
In the now famous High Court ruling on Mabo. Eddie Mabo, an indigenous man from Queensland had pushed for Native Title rights and presented his case to the High Court. Wilson dissented, but on grounds that the findings were not strongly based in equality. The High Court ruled in favour of Mabo (Mabo 1) on June 3, 1992. In 1993 the High Court inserted the legal doctrine of Native Title into law, thus changing the foundation of Australian law. The new law was The Native Title Act 1993. Wilson agreed on this, and became a vocal advocate for Aboriginal people.
He retired from the High Court in 1989, but in 1990 was appointed by the Hawke Government to the post of President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission until 1997. He served as Deputy Chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. He was made Chancellor of Murdoch University 1980 – 1995. From 1988 – 1991 he was elected and served as Moderator of the Uniting Church of Australia, which he did consecutively with his other appointments. He brought a stong social justice stance to the Church.
But I think his crowning achievement was conducting, along with Mick Dodson (The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner), the 1995 – 1997 National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. The report was pivotal in approaching the national tragedy of the Stolen Generations – forced removal of indigenous children from their families. The 600 page report was tabled in parliament in 1997. The then Prime minister John Howard refused to issue an apology, but his successor Kevin Rudd did on February 13 2008. State governements also issued apologies, some immediately others later on. It is a significant report in our history and though shameful, it is also a matter of integrity. The subject of the report was not unknow but invariably denied, ignored or resisted through our history. In spite of the community awareness, the report shocked the nation.
Sir Ronald Wilson never promoted himself, never sought public attention, believed he was hard working, but not exceptional. Yet his integrity in working tirelessly, in amongst all his other responsibilities, for the rights of the indigenous people of Australia is outstanding. His commitment to the values of human rights, equality, fairness, playing his part in the Native Title cases, bringing the plight of the Stolen Generation to national attention, and many other commitments is inspiring.
Mick Dodson said of him: “Once you convince Ron Wilson you can have no one more passionate as an advocate … As an advocate he gives it 120 per cent.”
Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court said of him: I think his great contribution is that he showed how a highly orthodox, conservative lawyer can grow up. How he can grow out of the cocoon. Can expand his mind in harmony with his heart and with the sense of spirituality in which he was raised.”
A man of integrity! And one who inspires me.