Sir Ninian Stephen remembered as 'a great Australian'

Ninian is a name not heard much these days, but for a child who would become Australian governor-general Sir Ninian Stephen, it was a word that meant salvation.

He was born in England of Scottish parents in 1923 but within days of his birth his father, a poultry farmer who had fought in World War I, abandoned the family and disappeared.

The deserted new mother, Barbara, had the great good fortune to be taken on as a paid companion to the wealthy heiress of an Australian pastoral empire, a single woman named Nina Mylne who was drifting around Europe.

Sir Ninian Stephen packed a lot into his 94 years. Photo: John Woudstra

Sir Ninian Stephen packed a lot into his 94 years. Photo: John Woudstra

Soon after, in Geneva Barbara Stephen's baby boy was christened. He was given the name Ninian to honour the woman who had, in effect, saved the little family.

They travelled on to Paris, Cannes and the beachside commune of Saint-Cast-le-Guildo in north-west France, and to Wiesbaden in Germany, before settling in Edinburgh, where Nina Mylne paid for Ninian's early schooling.

His education continued in London and Montreux, Miss Mylne travelling with the boy while his mother ran a boarding house in Edinburgh.

With war descending upon Europe, the three of them moved in 1940 to Australia, where the teenaged Ninian spent two terms at Scotch College in Melbourne, before enrolling in Melbourne University to study law.

All the while, Ninian Stephen had no idea he'd been abandoned. He was told his father had died from the lingering effects of having been gassed in the war.

He would not discover the truth for 70 years. In 2003, he finally learned that his father had run away to Canada, where he had started a new family.

Sir Ninian, a man of great generosity and compassion, reached out to the surviving members of that family, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby revealed on Wednesday.

An extraordinary childhood had built an extraordinary man.

Sir Ninian's widow, Valery, Lady Stephen. Photo: AAP

Sir Ninian's widow, Valery, Lady Stephen. Photo: AAP

Ninian Stephen would go on to become, and will now be remembered as, "a great man, a great Australian and a great citizen of the world", as former foreign minister and now chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Gareth Evans, told mourners at Sir Ninian's funeral service within Melbourne's great echoing St Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday.

Professor Evans read a tribute from former prime minister Bob Hawke, relating that Mr Hawke had once asked Sir Ninian why he'd accepted Malcolm Fraser's invitation in 1982 to become Australia's 20th governor-general.

"I never really liked the law much," Mr Hawke said Sir Ninian replied. Perhaps it was one of Sir Ninian's gentle witticisms; perhaps it was a truth about his restless nature.

Sir Ninian was recognised when he became governor-general as one of Australia's leading constitutional lawyers.

He'd been a judge of the High Court for a decade, and a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court before that.

And yet, his term as governor-general, from 1982 to 1989, was not simply to be a final spin around the track, his judicial responsibilities behind him.

He turned out to be, Professor Evans said, "an absolute natural as an international statesman and diplomat", blessed with a rich and mellifluous voice and the natural ability to understand all points of view.

Prime ministers past and present, Governor-General Cosgrove and former governors-general, the Chief Justice of the High Court, other dignitaries of the law, politics and and diplomacy, Sir Ninian's widow Valery, Lady Stephen, his family and several hundred others who knew him and loved him came to say farewell, his funeral procession led away by a Scottish pipe band.

Such a life Sir Ninian had packed in to his 94 years.

After university and before his career in Australia's legal world, he'd served as a soldier in New Guinea, New Britain and Borneo.

When he completed his long term as governor-general, he worked to ban mining in Antarctica as Australia's first ambassador for the environment.

Sir Ninian was far from done. He then became an international peacemaker, in South Africa and as chairman of the second round of Northern Ireland Peace talks. He was a judge of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, overseeing the case between Australia and Portugal over East Timor's future.

He was a judge with tribunals investigating international war crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and served as an envoy of the UN Secretary-General to try to resolve conflict in Bangladesh.

Well into older age, Sir Ninian helped draft Afghanistan's constitution after the Taliban was ousted.

And despite living his life in Melbourne "in ignorant bliss" of Australian rules football, as Justice Kirby chuckled to mourners, Sir Ninian was appointed to the International Olympic Committee's Ethics Committee.

As Professor Evans said, "this was a man who made everyone with whom he engaged feel better for the experience".

This story Sir Ninian Stephen remembered as 'a great Australian' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.