Wit and wisdom of a modest man
Fortunate Voyager: The Worlds of Ninian Stephen
By Philip Ayres Miegunyah Press, 319pp, $59.99 (HB)
HEMINGWAY’S indictment of the man who does not take advantage of life as it slips by finds the antithesis in Ninian Stephen. This biography by Philip Ayres concentrates on his career, a rollcall of distinction that includes appointment as a Queen’s Counsel, High Court judge, member of the Privy Council, governor-general, judge of the International Court of Justice as well as diplomat and mediator in Ireland, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Burma. It is a career that garnered him five knighthoods and the Legion d’honneur.
Ayres’s account is rigorous in its detail and conveys an overall impression of admiration for his subject, without descending into hagiography. Stephen’s rise from junior barrister to governor-general via the High Court is covered, by necessity, within the first half of the book. These domestic feats are the introduction to his weighty contributions in international affairs, starting as chairman in the Northern Ireland peace talks. From there Stephen’s stride does not diminish; a lifelong smoker, he accurately declared, at age 77, his ‘‘ very good health’’ to the doctors at the International Labour Organisation before their secretariat sent him to Burma on a mission to investigate forced labour.
Ayres leavens the record with an engaging pace and amusing asides, such as Stephen hosting the Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, known for installing CCTV cameras in hotel rooms to monitor his ministers of state. Waiting on the tarmac with Bob Hawke to receive him, Stephen commented, ‘‘ Why don’t you try that, Bob?’’ Hawke responded, ‘‘ There wouldn’t be enough film.’’
The irony that pervades the book is the view of many who know him that Stephen is not the driven individual of great ambition usually connected with such achievement. He is certainly no ideologue: in reading his judgments and speeches there is no tendency towards dogmatic or fashionable arguments. Instead, what distinguishes him is a great capacity for work and a forensic yet equable intelligence that accommodated the notion of reasonable minds differing on any given issue. It also made him ideally suited to the conscientious independence required by public office.
A Liberal appointee to the High Court and governor-generalship, his term as the latter was extended by Hawke, who stated his ‘‘ highest regard for Sir Ninian Stephen, his integrity, intelligence and commitment to this country’’. The parties to the Northern Ireland peace talks may not have agreed on much else at that stage but had consensus in their warm praise ‘‘ for the qualities of character and intellect that Sir Ninian displayed’’. In the opinion of Lord Mayhew, secretary of state for Northern Ireland at the time, Stephen’s ‘‘ contribution prepared the ground very significantly’’ for the development of the Good Friday Agreement.
Recognised internationally, but perhaps less acknowledged in Australia, is the extent of his role as a founding judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The UN Security Council, in adopting Resolution 827 to establish an international tribunal for prosecuting war crimes, had created a court that existed in name only. Lacking a courthouse, staff, prosecutors or investigators, there was also no body of jurisprudence or proper legal foundation as to how the tribunal should conduct itself. In addressing this, Stephen was seminal in the drafting and development of the rules governing procedure and evidence.
The system remains a model today, in an area of law that had little precedent since the Nuremberg trials. He sat on the tribunal for its first trial, which lasted for months, with closing submissions covering 7000 pages.
Ayres has written a biography of deceptively broad appeal. While the law is prominent, in charting the trajectory and span of such a career it becomes by its nature an excursus on history, politics and diplomacy, along with a dash of royalty and celebrity. It is an important book on an extraordinary life, and optimism is to be found in it. Where too often in the theatre of law and politics the loudest voice and lowest spin prevails, this is a man of wisdom and humility who exercised a constructive global influence during a career justly replete with accolades.
Former governor-general Ninian Stephen, pictured in 1995