Bill's Speeches



Today we honour a long life, lived for others.

Sir Ninian Stephen brought gravitas, good humour and calm dignity to the office of Governor-General and his qualities and capacities were held in the highest regard by all Australians and by all sides of politics. It's a measure of the man that he was initially chosen by Malcolm Fraser but he would later have his term extended by Bob Hawke. 

And Sir Ninian's passionate internationalism also broadened the scope of the role, expanding the program of overseas visits, now so central to the Governor-General's responsibilities as a representative of Australia. 

Indeed this was the recurring pattern of Sir Ninian's public life, he enhanced, enriched and elevated every position that he held. 

In the uniform of his country, in the High Court, in high office and later on the world stage Sir Ninian Stephen embodied the ideals of service, duty and justice. 

Perhaps no other Australian has received more accolades, yet he was also a person of profound humility who shunned the spotlight and never sought a curtain-call.

As a young man, he deferred his studies his legal studies at Melbourne University when he was called upon to serve in Papua New Guinea and Borneo with the Royal Australian Engineers.

He would later become a recognised authority on constitutional law, which as honourable Members know can be complex and evolving. 

He was a QC before the age of 45 and a High Court Judge before 50 and instead of Governor-General being the pinnacle of his public service it became a springboard for further acts of truly global significance. 

As Australia's first ambassador for the environment, his advocacy and diplomacy helped preserve the entire continent of Antarctica from mining. A quarter-century later it's easy to look upon this as a fait accompli but amidst the end of the Cold War, this was a highly-charged and fiercely contested question.

And Sir Ninian's role, indeed Australia's leadership, in the world's largest conservation decision ought to be better known. 

Mr Speaker, as a young man Ninian was taken to a Nazi rally in Nuremberg following the annexation of Austria.One face amongst tens of thousands on those vast concrete terraces, close enough to photograph Hitler.

Nuremberg would later serve as the home for the war trials for the Nazi leadership - the first of their kind. And in one of those quirks of history, Sir Ninian would subsequently serve as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal investigating the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia.

Indeed his intellect and his diplomatic gifts made him a highly respected mediator in the Northern Island peace talks, political conflict in Bangladesh and in the dispute over Timor-Leste sovereignty. 

On every occasion Sir Ninian brought a measure of justice, reconciliation and peace to these troubled places and in doing so he brought honour to all of us, to Australia. 

Our Parliament, our country and future generations of Australians are forever in his debt.

We offer our condolences to Lady Stephen and their family and we thank them for the contribution their loved one made to the life of our nation and to the cause of justice around the world. 

May he rest in peace. 

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