Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Sir Ninian Martin Stephen (1923–2017)

from Sydney Morning Herald

A state funeral will be held for former governor-general Sir Ninian Stephen who has died, aged 94.

Government House on Sunday said Sir Ninian, who served as governor-general from 1982 to 1989, died in Melbourne.

In tribute to the "great statesman", Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said there were "very few honours that Sir Ninian doesn't have to his name".

"He's been knighted five times, was a Justice of the High Court of Australia and Supreme Court of Victoria, member of the Privy Council and Australian Ambassador for the Environment," Mr Turnbull said in a statement.

"Australia will remember Sir Ninian for his humility, his intellect, and his lifelong commitment to justice and the rule of law.

"Sir Ninian's family has accepted my offer of a state funeral."

Sir Ninian was born in Britain and arrived in Melbourne in 1940, making him Australia's only immigrant governor-general.

He also served on the High Court, as an international judge, and an ambassador and a peacemaker.

And, though he had a towering reputation as a lawyer in Australia and overseas, he once confessed that he never liked the law much.

In 1982, then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser chose him to replace Zelman Cowen as governor-general.

It was widely welcomed. Gough Whitlam congratulated Mr Fraser for choosing better governor-generals than he had.

Gareth Evans, then shadow attorney-general, said Sir Ninian was "one of the key components of the enlightened majority which had recently been emerging on the High Court".

Sir Ninian's period at Yarralumla was uncontroversial and remembered chiefly for his warmth and informality.

He embarked on the usual round of vice-regal activities, attending functions great and modest. At the Cobargo show he sashed the mother instead of the baby.

Although a keen bushwalker, he was not much into sport. His daughter Sarah has told how, when offered the No.1 ticket at the Hawthorn football club, it had to be explained what this meant, who the players were and how they were infinitely more important than the Queen's representative.

His only constitutionally delicate moment came in 1983 when Mr Fraser, anxious to call an election before Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as Labor leader, asked for a double dissolution on the grounds that the Senate had twice rejected a string of bills.

The prime minister turned up unexpectedly at Yarralumla with a weighty document and asked for an immediate decision. Sir Ninian, who had another engagement, refused; promising one in about three hours.

The deadline was stretched another hour when Sir Ninian asked for more information. By then, Mr Hawke was the Labor leader and, five weeks later, prime minister.

Mr Hawke extended Sir Ninian's term, which meant he was governor-general through all the celebrations and ceremonies of 1988, Australia's bicentennial year.

Sir Ninian stepped down in 1989 to become Australia's first ambassador to the environment under Mr Hawke.

In her memoir, Hazel Hawke recalled that the Stephens invited the Hawkes to dinner on their first weekend at the Lodge.

Mr Hawke, warming to the hosts' informality, asked Sir Ninian why he'd become governor-general when he was an eminent judge.

"To our surprise he replied, 'Well, I never really liked the law much,' " Hazel Hawke wrote.

Sir Ninian was born on June 15, 1923, on a poultry farm near Oxford, England.

His mother Barbara worked as a paid companion to Miss Nina Milne, the expatriate daughter of a wealthy Queenslander.

Miss Milne took mother and son under her wing, saw that he went to good British and continental schools and brought them to Melbourne in 1940.

World War II, in which he saw active service in New Guinea and Borneo and became a lieutenant, interrupted his law studies at the University of Melbourne.

After the war Sir Ninian completed his degree and married Valery Sinclair. They had five daughters.

He worked mainly in commercial, equity, taxation and constitutional law and became a QC in 1966.

Future Liberal deputy leader Neil Brown, who worked under him as a young barrister, said Sir Ninian was the most obliging and helpful person he'd ever met.

In 1970, he became a Victorian Supreme Court judge and two years later went to the High Court.

Sir Ninian formed part of the moderate centre of a court divided between the conservative chief justice Sir Garfield Barwick and the radical activist Lionel Murphy.

He was middle of the road on states' rights – with the dissenting minority when the court sustained the Commonwealth's sovereignty over the territorial sea, but with the majority that decided on a broad interpretation of the external affairs power.

In 1992, the British and Irish governments chose Sir Ninian to head a new round of peace talks in Northern Ireland.

A year later, he became one of the judges on the new international tribunal to try war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

General counsel for the United Nations Hans Corell said of Sir Ninian's work on the tribunal, and a later appeal court covering Yugoslavia and Rwanda: "In his knowledge, wisdom and grace, he was one of the leading judges on the bench."

Approaching his 80s, he remained in demand, advising on South Africa's constitution and helping negotiate a way through a political impasse in Bangladesh.

He took part in an investigation in Burma on behalf of the International Labor Organisation and worked on setting up a tribunal to hear Cambodian atrocities.

He also helped draft a constitution for post-Taliban Afghanistan.

At an 80th birthday dinner for him, former High Court judge Michael Kirby said, "Serving Australia was not enough for Ninian Stephen. He went beyond and served a wider world."

Governor-General Peter Cosgrove said in a statement on Sunday: "Our nation is a better place due to his service and he will be most warmly remembered.

"Sir Ninian served in the AIF during World War II, was a most eminent and distinguished person throughout his legal career and a very fine Governor-General."

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Sir Ninian Martin Stephen

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Stephen, Sir Ninian Martin (1923–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024