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Sir Ninian Stephen

Tribute by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, State Funeral of the late Rt Hon Sir Ninian Stephen KG AK GCMG GCVO KBE QC, St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, 8 November 2017

No Australian I’ve ever known has commanded more universal respect, admiration and outright affection both here and around the world than Sir Ninian Stephen.

No doubt this had a little bit to do with how magnificently Ninian always looked and sounded the part. He was the senior counsel and judge from central casting; the head of state from central casting; the statesman-diplomat from central casting; and – with his wonderfully engaging wife and five gorgeously spirited daughters – the family man from central casting as well.

Very much part of the package was that superbly rich and mellifluous voice, invariably elegant, always charming, as witty as the occasion demanded, and always, always calm and measured and utterly imperturbable – whatever the provocation, be it from under-prepared barristers, over-exuberant NGO activists, over-demanding journalists, over-impatient ministers, or world-class international political provocateurs like Northern Island’s Ian Paisley, or Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina, or Cambodia’s Hun Sen. As someone whose own temperament I have recently felt obliged to describe as ‘not of the cloth from which Zen masters are cut’, I can only marvel at the image he presented to the world.

A further indispensable part of the public Ninian package, in those less censorious days, was all that marvelously managed business with the pipe: the scraping and tamping and sucking into life, then the languorous and contemplative puffing – all of it theatrically right up there in the league of JB Priestly, Bertrand Russell and Inspector Maigret.

But of course it’s not just the image that we honour and celebrate in the life of Ninian Stephen. It’s the rich substance of his many achievements, and the totally delightful reality of his character. Michael Kirby has reminded us of the significance of his role on the High Court bench. And both he and Bob Hawke have recalled what I guess we can all remember about his totally successful term (extended to the embrace the Bicentenary) as a soothing, healing and hugely popular Governor-General.

Both of them also recalled some of Ninian’s post-gubernatorial international roles, and it’s these I want to particularly emphasise, because his contributions here really were path-breaking, and did much to enhance Australia’s stature and standing in the wider world.

As our first Ambassador for the Environment he played a crucial part in delivering on our commitment to make Antarctica a wilderness park in perpetuity, and laying the early foundations for effective global action on greenhouse gases. As a peace envoy, for the Commonwealth in South Africa, the United Nations in Bangladesh, the International Labor Organization in Myanmar, and above all in Northern Ireland laying the foundations for what became the Good Friday agreement some years later, he invariably won kudos for his handling of problems of the utmost delicacy and difficulty.

His work in revitalizing the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave new credibility to its adjudications, not least recently in the South China Sea case. He played a seminal and indispensable role in The Hague over four years in the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And as a UN expert he laid the foundations – yet again – for what became the hybrid court trying the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge, for which he won the enduring affection if not of the Cambodian leadership, certainly of its people.

Ninian Stephen was an absolute natural as an international statesman-diplomat – the role to which he would have come much earlier in his career had our External Affairs Department been a little less myopic when he applied to join it in 1949! Not just because of his intelligence, shrewd and balanced judgment, and great communication skills, both orally and in writing, but above all because of that superb quality of empathy – that ability to see and understand things from the other’s point of view – which is the essential foundation for all great diplomacy, as indeed it is for political leadership.

What every one of us who had the privilege of knowing or working with Ninian Stephen loved, above all else, about the man was his essential decency and humanity. He carried off all those great public roles with great style and dignity, all the old Roman public virtues of pietas and gravitas and dignitas. But there was always more to it than that: this was a man who made everyone with whom he engaged, whatever the context, feel better for the experience. This was a man who just twinkled.

And he never twinkled more obviously or contentedly in the company of his beloved Valery, their wonderful daughters and all his family. They will miss him more than any of us can imagine. But so too will we all. Ninian Stephen was a great man, a great Australian, and a great citizen of the world. We mourn his passing.