Ninian Stephen

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The Right Honourable
Sir Ninian Stephen
20th Governor-General of Australia
In office
29 July 1982 – 16 February 1989
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser
Bob Hawke
Preceded by Sir Zelman Cowen
Succeeded by Bill Hayden
Justice of the High Court of Australia
In office
1 March 1972 – 11 May 1982
Nominated by William McMahon
Appointed by Sir Paul Hasluck
Preceded by Sir Victor Windeyer
Succeeded by Sir William Deane
Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria
In office
30 June 1970 – 29 February 1972
Nominated by Sir Henry Bolte
Appointed by Sir Rohan Delacombe
Preceded by Robert Monahan
Succeeded by William Kaye
Personal details
Born (1923-06-15) 15 June 1923 (age 94)
Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, England
Spouse(s) Valerie Sinclair (m. 1949)
Children 5
Profession Barrister, judge
Military service
Allegiance Australia
Service/branch Australian Army
Years of service 1942–1946
Rank Lieutenant
Battles/wars Second World War

Sir Ninian Martin Stephen KG, AK, GCMG, GCVO, KBE, QC (born 15 June 1923) is a former Australian judge who served as the 20th Governor-General of Australia, in office from 1982 to 1989. He was previously a Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1972 to 1982.[1]

Stephen was born in England to Scottish parents, as a child he lived for periods in France, Germany, Scotland, and Switzerland, eventually arriving in Australia at the age of 16. Stephen served with the Australian Army during World War II, and after the war entered the legal profession, he became one of Australia's leading constitutional lawyers. Stephen was appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1970, and then to the High Court in 1972, aged 48, he was considered a member of the court's "moderate centre". In 1982, Stephen was appointed governor-general on the recommendation of Malcolm Fraser, he approved two double dissolutions during his time in office, the only governor-general to do so.

Early life[edit]

Stephen was born in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, England, to Scottish parents Barbara (née Cruickshank) and Frederick Brown Stephen, his father, a poultry farmer and ex-soldier, deserted the family shortly after his birth, moving to Canada and starting a new family; his son was told that he had died, and did not learn the truth until 2003. Stephen's mother was a paid companion for Nina Mylne, the wealthy heiress of the Queensland pastoralist Graham Mylne; his given name was in her honour. During his early childhood, the three of them lived for periods in Switzerland (Geneva, where he was christened), France (Paris, Cannes, and Saint-Cast-le-Guildo) and Germany (Wiesbaden). They eventually moved to Edinburgh in 1929 so Stephen could begin his formal schooling.[2]

Mylne paid for Stephen's education, which took place in Scotland (George Watson's College and Edinburgh Academy), London (St Paul's School), and Switzerland (Chillon College, Montreux). He and Mylne generally travelled together, while his mother remained in Scotland and ran a boardinghouse; in 1940, the three of them moved to Melbourne to avoid the impending war. Stephen attended Scotch College for two terms, and was then accepted into the University of Melbourne to study law. However, he deferred his studies to join the Australian Army, serving in New Guinea, New Britain, and Borneo.[2][3]

Legal career[edit]

Stephen completed his studies after the war's end, and was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1949. By the 1960s, he had become one of Australia's leading constitutional and commercial lawyers, he was made a Queen's Counsel in 1966.[1]

Judicial career[edit]

On 30 June 1970, Stephen was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria, which is the highest ranking court in the Australian State of Victoria. He held this position until 29 February 1972, relinquishing it to take up his appointment as a Justice of the High Court of Australia.[1]

Although Stephen was appointed by a Liberal government, he proved not to be a traditional conservative upholder of states' rights, he joined the "moderate centre" of the court, between the arch-conservatism of Sir Garfield Barwick and the radicalism of Lionel Murphy. In 1982 he was part of the majority that decided on a broad interpretation of the "external affairs power" of the Australian Constitution in the Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen case.


In March 1982, on the advice of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia appointed Stephen as Governor-General.[1] He was sworn in on 29 July 1982, on the retirement of Sir Zelman Cowen. When Fraser was defeated by the Labor Party under Bob Hawke in 1983, Stephen had no difficulty working with a Labor government. In 1987, on Hawke's advice, the Queen extended Stephen's term by 18 months as a mark of personal respect and also to allow Bill Hayden (to whom Hawke had promised the position) to leave politics at a time of his choosing. Stephen is the only governor-general to have approved two double dissolutions – in 1983 (Malcolm Fraser) and 1987 (Bob Hawke).

Later work[edit]

In 1989, Stephen became the first Australian Ambassador for the Environment[1] and, in his three-year term, was particularly energetic in working for a ban of mining in Antarctica; in 1991 he undertook a difficult task when he was appointed chairman of the second strand of the Northern Ireland peace talks. From 1991 to 1995, he was a judge ad hoc of the International Court of Justice in the case East Timor (Portugal v. Australia) 1991–1995.[4] From 1993 to 1997, he was a judge on the international tribunals investigating war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, he has also been chairman of the Citizenship Council since 1998.[citation needed] In 1994, he acted as a special envoy of the UN Secretary General to resolve political conflicts in Bangladesh.[citation needed]

Stephen later moved back into the legal field, becoming president of an arbitral tribunal constituted under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), charged with the adjudication of an investment dispute between Mondev, a Canadian investor, and the United States of America.[5]

A detailed scholarly biography of Stephen, Fortunate Voyager by Philip Ayres, was released in September 2013.[6] Drawing upon it, Ayres also summarised Stephen's career for the Victorian Bar News.[7]

Titles, styles and honours[edit]

Stephen was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) on 20 April 1972 "for distinguished services to the Law"[8] and sworn of the Privy Council in 1979. As Governor-General he was made a Knight of the Order of Australia (AK), Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) and Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO). In 1994 Queen Elizabeth II appointed him a Knight of the Garter (KG), being the most recent Australian to be granted a knighthood in the personal gift of the monarch of Australia. He therefore has the unusual distinction of holding five separate knighthoods and joined Lord Casey and Sir Paul Hasluck as one of the few Australian Knights of the Garter. In 1983 he was named a Commandeur of the French Légion d'honneur.[9][10][11]

Stephen delivered the first Sir Ninian Stephen Lecture at the University of Newcastle's law school in 1993, giving his name to this lecture series.[citation needed]


  • Ninian Stephen (1923–1966)
  • Ninian Stephen QC (1966–1970)
  • The Hon. Ninian Stephen QC (1970–1972)
  • The Hon. Sir Ninian Stephen KBE, QC (1972–1979)
  • The Rt. Hon. Sir Ninian Stephen KBE, QC (1979–1982)
  • His Excellency the Rt. Hon. Sir Ninian Stephen AK GCMG GCVO KBE QC (1982–1989)
  • The Rt. Hon. Sir Ninian Stephen AK, GCMG, GCVO, KBE, QC (1989–1994)
  • The Rt. Hon. Sir Ninian Stephen KG, AK, GCMG, GCVO, KBE, QC (since 1994)


Foreign honours



Personal life[edit]

Stephen married Valerie Sinclair in 1949 and they have five daughters. One of his children, Mary, was married to Peter Hayes.[13]

Stephen and his wife are patrons of the Australian Inland Botanic Gardens.[14]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k High Court of Australia (2010). "About the Justices". Retrieved 7 May 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Ayres, Philip (2013). Fortunate Voyager: The Worlds of Ninian Stephen. Melbourne University Publishing. ISBN 9780522862089. 
  3. ^ Carroll, Brian (2004). Australia's Governors-General: From Hopetoun to Jeffery. Rosenberg. pp. 173–179. ISBN 1877058211. 
  4. ^ East Timor (Portugal v. Australia), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1995, p. 90.
  5. ^ Mondev International Ltd. v. United States of America, ICSID Case No. ARB(AF)/99/2
  6. ^ Ayres, Philip (2013). Fortunate Voyager: The Worlds of Ninian Stephen. Carlton: Megunyah/Melbourne University Publishing. ISBN 9780522862089. 
  7. ^ Ayres, Philip (Winter 2014). "Ninian Stephens at the Victorian Bar". Victorian Bar News. The Victorian Bar Inc. pp. 30–34. Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  8. ^ "No. 45652". The London Gazette. 21 April 1972. p. 4777. 
  9. ^ Philip Ayres. Fortunate Voyager: The Worlds of Ninian Stephen. Retrieved 19 July 2014
  10. ^ ABC Editorial Policies: About the Authors, p. 5. Retrieved 19 July 2014
  11. ^ Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Dialogue 22, 2/2003, p. 11. Retrieved 19 July 2014
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Portraits of Australians". Retrieved 1 February 2012.  External link in |work= (help)
  13. ^ Fox, K (17 February 2015). "Australian Legal Dynasties: The Stephens and the Streets". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 
  14. ^ "A community project". Retrieved 2 October 2009. 
  15. ^ Banner of arms image, College of St George website. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
  16. ^ Banner of arms image. Arms shown over the crest (A parrot), a blue fess, tincture according to the torse. College of St George website. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
  17. ^ Crest image, Heraldic Sculptor. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
  18. ^ Order of Australia insignia. The Order of Australia Association. Retrieved 27 December 2013.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Zelman Cowen
Governor-General of Australia
Succeeded by
Bill Hayden