Ron Merkel explains why he retired as a judge, 2008

Transcript of interview

I spent about ten and a half years as a judge on the [Federal] Court. When I retired - I would have had to retire after another four or five years - I thought that we'd been through a period in Australia where human rights had become a big issue and that for the last stage of my legal career, with a charter of rights becoming operative in Victoria, and a greater consciousness of human rights issues being available in the courts, I thought I'd rather go back and try and focus on that aspect of the law for the last part of my career, rather than continue deciding cases as a judge in the federal sphere, which I've done. And I felt it was time to move on, let someone else take over that role and see what contribution I could make in this area that I've always had a very deep interest in.

And probably the most fundamental human rights we encounter in Australia are those that concern Indigenous Australians. I think that Aboriginal people were a dispossessed alienated people. They suffered terrible injustice as a result of colonisation. They suffered a terrible injustice because our legal system never recognised that Aboriginal people had a legal system and had a very sophisticated system that enabled them to survive for over 50,000 years in this territory, and it was just tragic that they had been so ignored and so misunderstood by our legal system.

The turnaround came with Mabo, which recognised the fallacy of the past and that Australia wasn't 'terra nullius', which is an unoccupied land, but it was a land occupied by Aboriginal people according to sophisticated social systems and legal systems that entitled them to have native title. So for me to be able to see law become an instrument where it can be used as an instrument of justice rather than injustice was very fundamental to the outlook that I have as an Australian, someone who was born here, and someone who appreciates and has enjoyed the benefits of Australian society. I thought we owe it to Indigenous Australians to give them the same availability and access to our legal system to vindicate their rights. So it's something I've always felt very strongly about.