Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Sir Ronald Wilson's life in compartments

  • 17 October 2007

Western Australian legal academic Antonio Buti has written a detailed biography of the late Sir Ronald Wilson, that State’s first High Court judge. A Matter of Conscience (UWA Press 2007) surveys Wilson’s three major legal and political roles — first as a West Australian crown prosecutor and solicitor general; then as a High Court judge fiercely protective of state rights; and finally as a national social justice advocate, especially through his joint chairing of the Human Rights Commission’s report on the stolen generation, Bringing Them Home.

The backdrop for all three phases is Wilson’s family and his church — the family from whom he often had to be absent, catching the 'red eye’ across the continent for work for years on end, and the Uniting Church, which he helped found as a leading Presbyterian and over which he presided while still serving as a High Court judge.

Buti acknowledges the many unresolved tensions between the public roles and private persona of Wilson, once described by the legendary Reverend Jim Downing as 'the biggest little man I have ever known’. His fellow judge and state solicitor general Sir Daryl Dawson observed of the 5’ 4” Wilson: 'Any impression his small stature may have given was immediately eclipsed by the strength of his personality.'

Wilson was a ruthless prosecutor. As a judge, he stood firm on state rights even when such rights would interfere with the basic rights and liberties of Australian Aboriginals. But on retirement from the bench, as a social justice advocate, he espoused Aboriginal rights in the face of strong antipathy and government intransigence. Buti gives the reader copious quotes from Wilson’s supporters and critics at each stage of his public life, allowing the reader to decide whether Wilson got the balance right.

Wilson lived with tension all his public life as he moved from advocate of state rights to judge and ultimately to advocate of human rights. At his swearing in, he paid tribute 'to all those brothers and sisters in the law who have journeyed with me from time to time and who have provided me with such rich personal relationships, for which I shall always be grateful’.

In his early professional life such relationships were forged with police and lawyers, and then with judges. Later they were forged with members of the stolen generation who held him in high regard. These relationships helped shape his