For­eign-born gov­er­nor-gen­eral

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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.

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