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Love endures after a life rich in accomplishment, former GG's State Funeral told

Sir Ninian Stephen, 94, farewelled at St Paul's Cathedral after a life as family man, jurist, viceroy and envoy for peace

Archbishop Philip Freier greets Sir Ninian's widow, Lady Valery Stephen, outside St Paul's before the State Funeral.

PHOTO: David Foote Auspic/DPS

By Mark Brolly

November 8 2017 

Love defined who former Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen grew to be and love was the enduring fruit of his life, the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, said at Sir Ninian’s State Funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral on 8 November.

Sir Ninian – the first immigrant to be appointed to Yarralumla, where he served from 1982-89 – died in Melbourne, holding his wife Lady Valery’s hand, on 29 October, aged 94. He is survived by Lady Valery, whom he married at St Mark’s Anglican church in Camberwell on 4 June 1949, their five daughters, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

The State Funeral, which was telecast by the ABC, was attended by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove (who read from the Ecclesiastes) and four of the other five men and women who succeeded Sir Ninian in the office, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (who read from the Song of Solomon), Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Chief Justice Susan Kiefel of the High Court of Australia, on which Sir Ninian served as a Justice for 10 years from 1972. Mrs Tamie Fraser, widow of Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who recommended his appointment as Governor-General, also was there, while former Labor Attorney-General and Foreign Minister, Professor Gareth Evans, read a message from Bob Hawke, who was unable to attend, but who as PM had asked Sir Ninian to stay in office beyond the Bicentenary in 1988 and a year later, appointed him Australia’s first Ambassador for the Environment. Former PM John Howard and his wife Janette were among the dignitaries and members of the public who gathered to mourn Sir Ninian.

Archbishop Philip Freier told the congregation that they had gathered to give thanks for the gifts Australia had received from the longest-lived of Australia’s 26 Governors-General. Dr Freier also gave the Blessing and led the Prayers of Farewell in the Cathedral Close as the service ended, with mourners following the hearse bearing Sir Ninian’s casket slowly east along Flinders Street.

In his sermon, Dean Loewe said: “Love gave him his gentle, sweet disposition, and freed him from anxiety about how to live his life. Love taught him not to trouble too much about himself, nor take himself too seriously, and enabled him to approach others with an open mind, fully relaxed and at ease with himself. Love gave him the security to be who he was, and love gives us the certainty that we can remember him, whenever we continue to share in that same love.

Sir Ninian’s daughter Dr Ann Stephen said her father had the love of two mothers as a child – his birth mother Barbara and Nine Mylne (after whom he was named), the Australian heiress of large pastoral holdings in NSW and Queensland, for whom Sir Ninian’s mother worked and who bankrolled his education. Born in England of Scottish parents in 1923, Sir Ninian moved to Australia with his mother and Ms Mylne in 1940.

Dr Stephen said her father’s life, for almost 70 years, then had at its centre his wife Valery. “They had a seamless bond… In his intimate life, he was also a romantic, writing beautiful, touching lines to our mother throughout his life.

“Dad worked in the worlds of men, largely the preserve of men, but his home life was shaped by generations of women, both feminine and feminist.”

Professor Evans said Sir Ninian was “the senior counsel and judge from central casting; he was the head of state from central casting; he was the statesman-diplomat from central casting; and – with his wonderfully engaging wife Val and those five gorgeously spirited daughters… – he was the family man from central casting as well”.

He focused on Sir Ninian’s contribution to international peace after his term as Governor-General.

“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,” Professor Evans said. “As a peace envoy, for the Commonwealth in South Africa, the United Nations in Bangladesh, the International Labor Organisation 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.”

Professor Evans said Sir Ninian was 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, and world-class international political provocateurs like Northern Island’s Ian Paisley, or Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina, or Cambodia’s Hun Sen”.

“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 than 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.”

Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby said Sir Ninian had been a faithful servant to the Constitution and a splendid example of the importance of internationalism

“None of the important cases or statutes on Aboriginal rights, including Mabo, could probably have occurred, certainly then, without Justice Stephen’s carefully crafted opinion…,” Mr Kirby said of Sir Ninian’s time on the High Court.

He said Sir Ninian learned only in 2003 that his father Frederick (whom he’d been told had died some years after being gassed during World War I) had abandoned his mother weeks after his birth and moved to Canada, where he formed a new family.

“When Ninian found the truth, he reached out to and met his new siblings,” Mr Kirby said.

“False pride and shame imposed by others meant nothing, nothing at all.”

As he concluded his tribute, Mr Kirby looked across at Sir Ninian’s casket and quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Good night, sweet prince,

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”