SIR Ninian Stephen was a judge, ambassador, peacemaker and Australia’s only immigrant governor-general.
His time at Yarralumla, from 1982 to 1989, was uncontroversial and remembered chiefly for his warmth and informality.
And, though he had a towering reputation as a lawyer in Australia and overseas, he once confessed that he never liked the law that much.
Sir Ninian was born on a poultry farm near Oxford, England. His Scottish father died of the effects of World War I mustard gas poisoning when he was six months old. His mother Barbara went back to her old job as paid companion to a Nina Milne, the expatriate daughter of a wealthy Queenslander.
Milne took mother and son under her wing, sent him to good schools and brought them to Melbourne in 1940.
WWII, in which he saw active service in New Guinea and Borneo and became a lieutenant, interrupted his law studies. After the war, he completed his degree and married Valery Sinclair. They had five daughters.
Sir Ninian became a QC in 1966 and in 1970 became a Vic- torian Supreme Court judge. Two years later he went to the High Court. In 1982, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser chose him to be G-G in a move that was widely welcomed.
His only delicate moment came in 1983 when Fraser, anxious to call an election before Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as Labor leader, asked for a double dissolution. The PM wanted a quick decision but Sir Ninian, who had another engagement, refused; promising one in three hours. The deadline was stretched another hour when Sir Ninian asked for more information. By then, Hawke was the Labor leader, and five weeks later, prime minister.
In her memoir, Hazel Hawke recalled that Sir Ninian invited the Hawkes to dinner on their first weekend at the Lodge. The PM asked him why he’d become G-G when he was an eminent judge. “To our surprise he replied, ‘Well, I never really liked the law much’,” Hazel wrote.
In 1989, Sir Ninian stepped down and soon after Hawke made him Australia’s first ambassador to the environment.
In 1992 the British and Irish governments chose Sir Ninian to head peace talks in Northern Ireland. From Belfast he moved to The Hague as one of the judges on a tribunal to try war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.
He also advised on South Africa’s constitution and helped negotiate a way through a political impasse in Bangladesh. He worked on setting up a tribunal to hear Cambodian atrocities and helped draft a constitution for post-Taliban Afghanistan.
He is survived by Lady Stephen and their daughters, Mary, Ann, Sarah, Jane and Elizabeth, 12 grandchildren and five greatgrandchildren.