Jump to Content

The Rt Hon Sir Ninian Stephen KG AK GCMG GCVO KBE

Sir Ninian Stephen was born in 1923 at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire to Scottish parents. His father, Frederick, who had been a motorcycle courier in the Great War, died before Sir Ninian was a year old, leaving him to be raised by his mother Barbara and with the assistance of Miss Milne, to whom Mrs Stephen was a companion. He was educated in Scotland, England and Switzerland, and came to Australia in 1940. He completed his secondary education at Scotch College, Melbourne before joining the AIF, where he served until 1946, seeing action in the Pacific and rising to the rank of lieutenant. In 1949 he completed his law degree as an exhibition student, and began legal practice as a barrister and solicitor. He was admitted to the bar in 1952 and was made a Queen's Counsel in 1966.

Sir Ninian specialised in taxation law and constitutional law, and has long been a proponent of constitutional reform. He became a judge of the supreme court of Victoria in 1970 and was made a Justice of the High Court of Australia in 1972, a position which he held until being appointed Governor General in 1982. At his inauguration, Gough Whitlam happily forecast that 'his utterances will be fewer than Sir Zelman's and clearer than Sir John's. He will not attend many functions but he will grace those he does.'

Sir Ninian, always with Lady Stephen at his side, visited what he described as 'a whole new world' during his six and a half years as Governor-General. Overcoming the occasional error of the tyro - as when he sashed the mother instead of the baby at Cobargo Agricultural Show - he went on to develop mutual cordiality and respect with the people he met. 'Australians see their obligation not just to the class or clan to which they belong but to the community to which they belong', he observed (Democratic touch to formal farewell, Tony Stephens, Sydney Morning Herald, 9.2.89).

He has been an unwavering champion of multi-culturalism, and most notably in an address to the National Press Council (reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, 17.2.89, From Ipswich to Yarralumla) warned that the danger to Australian society lies not in variety, but in the seductiveness to the young of a monolingual, monocultural lifestyle.

In 1989 Sir Ninian became the first Australian Ambassador for the Environment, and in his three-year term was particularly energetic in working for a ban of mining in Antarctica. In 1991 he undertook one of the most difficult of all tasks when he was appointed chairman of the second strand of the Northern Ireland peace talks. Between 1993 and 1997 he was a judge on the international tribunals investigating war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He has also been chairman of the Citizenship Council since 1998. Sir Ninian was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1972 and a Privy Counsellor in 1979. Among the many honours he has since received are the Legion d'Honneur in 1983, and a knighthood of the Order of Australia in 1982. In 1994 he was made a Knight of the Garter.

Sir Ninian married Valery Sinclair in 1949, and is the father of five daughters who have, he says, trained him in libertarianism. Indeed, his has been a career of public service nurtured and supported by women. His leisure activities are bush-walking, camping, and reading.