BREEN, Dame Marie Freda (1902–1993)
Senator for Victoria, 1962–68 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Although claiming to be a somewhat reluctant senator, Marie Freda Breen created her own opportunities for political advancement and was committed to the increased representation of women in all facets of public life. Marie was born on 3 November 1902 at St Kilda, Victoria, second child of Frederick William Chamberlin, town clerk of St Kilda, who was born in London, and his Australian-born wife, Jane Maud, née Conquest. Although none of their immediate family had a party political background, Frederick and his wife were involved in public life, partly by virtue of Frederick’s position and partly through their mutual interest in charitable work. Marie’s childhood was a conventionally happy one, despite the wartime strictures of her teenage years. She was educated at St Michael’s Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, St Kilda, where she excelled at English, history and music. Like her parents, she was involved in fund-raising for the war effort and was a keen supporter of the Alfred Hospital.

After matriculating and leaving school, Marie continued piano studies for a few months, apparently considering the possibility of pursuing a musical career. Although this did not happen, she enjoyed opera, ballet and choral singing throughout her life. A desire to help her brother establish his law practice led to a course in shorthand and typing, and she eventually took up a position as a law clerk in Melbourne. She found the work enjoyable and interesting but, in the way of the time, left the paid workforce following her marriage, on 12 December 1928, to Robert Tweeddale Breen, a Kyabram-born solicitor with a family history of involvement in rural politics. They married at All Saints’ Church, St Kilda. Marie and Robert made their home at Brighton, Marie at first devoting her energies to the family home and to the raising of three daughters. Within a short space of time she was raising funds for the church kindergarten and by 1933 had become secretary of the Brighton Auxiliary for the Royal Melbourne Hospital.[1]

Marie credited Robert with having the greatest influence on her decision to embark on a political career. Well connected, regarded as a ‘champion debater’ and vitally interested in party politics, Robert was an active member of the Australian Natives’ Association and the Young Nationalists. In 1935 he was an unsuccessful United Australia Party (UAP) candidate, standing against the Labor leader, Thomas Tunnecliffe, for the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Collingwood. Elected to Brighton City Council (now the Bayside City Council) in 1940, he became Mayor of Brighton, serving from 1941 to 1942. He was an unsuccessful UAP candidate again in the state election of 1940, when his bid for the seat of Brighton was lost to the then independent and future premier, Ian Macfarlan. Marie Breen accompanied her husband to boisterous street meetings and supported him throughout his political campaigns. She joined the Brighton branch of the Australian Women’s National League (AWNL), taking on the role of secretary and forming close friendships with Ivy Wedgwood and well-known feminist Elizabeth Couchman. Formed in 1904, the AWNL was a women’s action group that promoted loyalty to the throne and political education for women, and opposed state socialism. Highly organised, the league was a significant force in non-Labor politics in Victoria. Couchman, president of the AWNL from 1927 to 1945, came close to winning UAP Senate preselection in 1940, and was a role model for Breen.

As Robert’s mayoress, Breen raised funds, honed her public speaking skills, and organised voluntary work among the women of Brighton for an organisation involved with air raid precautions. She was ex officio chairman of the Brighton Baby Health Centre Association, which sparked a lifelong interest in infant welfare and led to executive membership of the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association (1943–80). Her impressive leadership skills, quiet determination and confident manner made her a stalwart of many social welfare and charitable organisations. She believed that stable family life was the key to individual and social progress and worked hard to publicise family issues and promote the interests of women and children. She was a member of the executive of the Family Welfare Advisory Council, president of the National Council of Women (1954–58), Australian convenor of the Mothers’ Union, a founding member and vice-president of the Marriage Guidance Council of Victoria (1957–71), and one of the council’s first marriage counsellors. Breen’s initiative led to the establishment of the Victorian Family Council, and she served as its founding president (1958–78). She was president of the Family Planning Association, executive member of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Mothers and Babies (1943–78), life governor of the Royal Melbourne and Alfred hospitals, a member of the Victorian Parole Board, and of the Consumers Committee of Victoria. Breen was the driving force behind the establishment of the Victorian Association of Citizens’ Advice Bureaux in 1970, and was founding president until 1978. She was founding vice-president of the Australian–Asian Association (1957) and, as president of the Overseas Students Coordinating Committee, she found time to act as temporary guardian of two overseas students studying in Melbourne. In January 1958 she was appointed an OBE.[2]

From 1945 her activities became overtly political. With Wedgwood and other colleagues in the AWNL, she joined the newly established Liberal Party following the party’s promise, extracted by the league, that women would be full partners in the Victorian division of the party. As a result, in Victoria, women not only established a women’s section within the party, but were equally represented within its structures, with full rights in selecting candidates and formulating policy. Breen was a member of the party’s state executive from 1946, a member of Federal Council from 1952, president of the Federal Women’s Committee (1952), a member of Federal Executive (1952–55) and Victorian state vice-president from 1955. Despite this involvement in the Liberal Party, Breen did not consider a parliamentary career until 1960, when she was urged to stand at a by-election for the federal seat of Balaclava. By her own account, she was ‘violently’ opposed to the suggestion, unhappy at the thought of being away from her family for extended periods. Her husband changed this attitude by persuading her that she could not ‘keep preaching that women should do these things’, and not agree to do them herself.

Narrowly defeated for preselection for Balaclava, she went on to gain preselection for the 1961 general election, when she was placed third on the joint Liberal–Country Party Senate ticket behind Magnus Cormack and the Minister for Air, Harrie Wade. Breen embarked on a vigorous campaign of speeches, political meetings and doorknocking, emphasising both her desire to represent all the citizens of Victoria and the impact of political events on family life, but she had little help from the Melbourne media. Despite her long and distinguished social welfare career, newspaper reports often described her simply as a mother or grandmother, while there was constant confusion as to whether she was Mrs R. T. or Mrs M. F. Breen; she was reported more than once to be a man, and the Countryman felt it necessary to rehearse the lesser achievements of her husband and father-in-law in promoting her appeal to country electors. In the event, it was the distribution of Communist Party preferences that vitally affected the outcome of the election held on 9 December. Following a long drawn-out counting process, on 5 January 1962 Breen was declared elected as the fifth Victorian senator, narrowly defeating Frank McManus, deputy leader of the Democratic Labor Party, who had been widely tipped to take the seat and hold the balance of power. Seemingly surprised by her election, some daily papers reported that she would now be paid a salary of £2750 and £800 in allowances, as if this was somehow different from the salary of any other newly elected senator.[3]

Taking up her seat on 1 July 1962, Breen joined four other women in the Senate chamber. Her first speech gave voice to her long-standing interests: marriage guidance, the material and cultural well-being of Australian families and family support mechanisms. Throughout her term of office, she remained a loyal supporter of the Government, defending its record on pensions and praising the performance of the economy. She sought the appointment of a married woman to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, raised concerns about the content of children’s television, supported the removal of the marriage bar from public service employment, was keenly interested in the Colombo Plan and national development, and spoke often on welfare issues and of the plight of civilian widows and deserted wives. Despite the circumstances of her election, she was firmly anti-communist, and supported both the Asian Peoples’ Anti-Communist League and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Breen’s committee service included her appointment to the Senate Select Committee on the Metric System of Weights and Measures on 12 April 1967. Breen was preparing for the committee’s first meeting when she received news that Robert had been seriously injured in a car accident. Flying home to nurse him, she withdrew from many of her political activities and attended the Senate only sporadically until her term expired on 30 June 1968. She did not seek re-election; Robert died on 2 July 1968.[4]

Following her retirement, Breen immersed herself once again in the social welfare organisations she had worked so hard to establish. She was soon raising funds on behalf of UNICEF, and joined the Victorian Consultative Committee on Social Development and the Australian Advisory Council of Elders. She was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in June 1979.

After a lifetime of public service, Breen, still living in Brighton, died on 17 June 1993. Her three daughters survived her. Two of them took on their mother’s objective of ‘greater female representation in parliament and civic affairs’. Prudence Griffiths was active in local government, while Jeannette Patrick became Liberal MLA for Brighton (1976–85).[5]

Hilary Kent

[1] Dame Marie Freda Breen, Transcript of oral history interview with Amy McGrath, 1980, TRC 816, NLA, pp. 2–3; Dame Marie Freda Breen, Transcript of oral history interview with Bernadette Schedvin, 1983, POHP, TRC 4900/8, NLA, pp. 1:2–5, 1:7–13; Table Talk (Melb.), 14 June 1923, p. 31; CPD, 17 Aug. 1993, p. 42; Countryman (Melb.), 5 Oct. 1961, p. 1; Invitation, Nov. 1961, Dame Ivy Wedgwood Papers, MS 5159, folder 225, NLA.

[2] Breen, Transcript of interview with Amy McGrath, pp. 4–16, 25–6; Breen, Transcript of interview with Bernadette Schedvin, pp. 1:12–23, 1:25–6, 1:28–31, 2:1–3; CPD, 17 Aug. 1993, pp. 48–9; Margaret Fitzherbert, Liberal Women: Federation–1949, Federation Press, Annandale, NSW, 2004, pp. 200–1; Ann Millar, Trust the Women: Women in the Federal Parliament, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 1993, p. 68; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 23 Nov. 1961, p. 41; CPD, 22 Aug. 1962, p. 365; Marie Breen, The Victorian Family Council, Its History 1958–82, Victorian Family Council, Melbourne, 1982; Invitation, Wedgwood Papers, MS 5159, folder 225, NLA; Age (Melb.), 10 Jan. 1972, p. 9.

[3] Breen, Transcript of interview with Bernadette Schedvin, pp. 2:4–17; Breen, Transcript of interview with Amy McGrath, pp. 5–9, 16, 21–3; CPD, 17 Aug. 1993, pp. 39–40, 49; Age (Melb.), 23 Sept. 1961, p. 1; Diane Sydenham, Women of Influence: The First Fifty Years of Women in the Liberal Party, Women’s section, Liberal Party of Australia, Victorian division, 1996, pp. 81–4; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 23 Sept. 1961, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 2 Jan. 1962, p. 3; Countryman (Melb.), 5 Oct. 1961, p. 1; DT (Syd.), 6 Jan. 1962, p. 3; Mercury (Hob.), 6 Jan. 1962, p. 1.

[4] CPD, 22 Aug. 1962, pp. 364–6, 28 Aug. 1963, pp. 257–60; Breen, Transcript of interview with Bernadette Schedvin, pp. 2:17–18, 3:7–8, 3:12; CPD, 7 Apr. 1964, pp. 472–3, 2 Dec. 1965, p. 1977, 9 Dec. 1965, p. 2168, 29 Mar. 1966, pp. 271–2, 26 Aug. 1965, p. 163, 15 Sept. 1966, pp. 466–7, 26 Aug. 1965, p. 162, 29 Sept. 1965, p. 715; Breen, Transcript of interview with Amy McGrath, p. 17; CPD, 1 Apr. 1965, pp. 269–72, 13 June 1968, p. 1802.

[5] Age (Melb.), 10 Jan. 1972, p. 9; CPD, 17 Aug. 1993, pp. 40–2; Breen, Transcript of interview with Bernadette Schedvin, pp. 2:20, 3:13–16; Sydenham, Women of Influence, pp. 148, 160–1.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 59-62.

BREEN, Dame Marie Freda (1902–1993)

Parliamentary Handbook

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Victoria, 1962–68

Senate Committee Service

Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary and Government Publications, 1962–64

Library Committee, 1962–68

Printing Committee, 1962–68

Select Committee on the Metric System of Weights and Measures, 1967