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Tuesday, 17 August 1993
Page: 48

Senator KEMP —At the time Menzies formed the Liberal Party in 1944, Marie Breen belonged to the Australian Women's National League, a group that decided to join with the Liberal Party providing that equal representation would be given to women.

  Her husband, Robert, was an active member of the ANA and the Young Nationalists and was also involved in local and state politics, standing as the United Australia Party candidate for Footscray in 1945. Robert later became mayor of Brighton. In her role as mayoress of Brighton, Marie Breen became very much involved with community life and philanthropic activities. She said, `It was rather like the house that Jack built. One thing led to another'.

  She was active in the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association and was an executive member for 36 years. She became convenor of the Mothers Union and was integral in the establishment of, and became Vice-President of, the Marriage Guidance Council of Victoria. Dame Marie Breen's compassion and humanity are reflected in her involvement in many causes and in her role as a prominent voice for women, children and families.

  Senator Gareth Evans, in his condolence speech, pointed out that, in the area of child-care, for example, Dame Marie Breen could rightly be described as a pathfinder in promoting that particular area. She played a key role in the establishment and operation of the Victorian Family Council which took a keen interest in less fortunate families and addressed issues such as housing for low income groups and provision of playground facilities for children living in high-rise accommodation.

  Under the aegis of the National Council for Women, she was instrumental in the establishment of the citizens advice bureaus and strongly supported the establishment of an institute of family studies. Dame Marie's enormous efforts in welfare work for women and children were officially recognised when she was awarded an OBE in 1958 and in 1979 when she was made Dame of the British Empire, or DBE. Dame Marie held a wide range of offices in the Liberal Party and was a member of the executive committee and chairman of the women's section. She was state vice-president from 1955 to 1961.

  As a Liberal Party senator from 1962, she continued to promote her firm belief in the central and stabilising role of the family. As Ann Millar, the Acting Director of Parliamentary Research in the Senate Procedure Office notes in her forthcoming book about women in Parliament, entitled Trust the Women:

In her public speeches, Senator Breen placed considerable emphasis on the importance of family life, stating on one occasion that `stable national life depended very largely upon a stable family life'. However, she did not see that as excluding other areas of political debate, rather, that all topics had an effect on family life and that therefore women had an important role to play.

Although she had been long involved in public affairs, Dame Marie recounts her terror at having to present her maiden speech and the prospect of every word being recorded in Hansard. However, history records that she quickly overcame her nervousness. Particularly through her work on Senate committees, she contributed a great deal to the work of federal parliament.

  Her friends have reminded me in so many ways that Dame Marie could be described as a pathfinder. A number of other senators have mentioned that she was a very strong advocate of closer relations with our Asian neighbours. She was Vice-President of the Australian Asian Association which in her words `has been extremely successful . . . in developing a better understanding of the Asian people'. Interestingly, Sir Edward Dunlop, to whom we are also paying tribute this evening, was president of that association at one time.

  Before becoming a senator, Dame Marie travelled to Korea where she spoke at an anti-communist rally. In the mid-1960s, in an official capacity, Dame Marie and her husband travelled to Malaysia, India and Indonesia, where she spoke on behalf of Australia at a major rally in Jakarta.

  After six years in the Senate, Dame Marie's promising political career was cut short when she resigned to nurse her husband who had been gravely injured in an accident. With the warmth and determination that was so characteristic of this remarkable woman, she nursed her husband every day for 13 months. Sadly, he did not recover. There seems little doubt that had Marie Breen stayed in the Senate she would have risen to high political office.

  There are other features of this remarkable woman which should be recorded in the Senate this evening. Marie Breen was a committed and practising Christian all her life. Her faith was reflected in her longstanding record of service to the church. The Friday night discussion group meetings, for example, which she organised for the St Peter's youth fellowship in the 1940s and 1950s where topical and contentious issues were discussed are still, I am pleased to record, remembered by those who attended those particular discussion groups.

  Marie Breen was a very talented pianist and singer and at one stage in her youth she hoped to pursue a musical career and study at the conservatorium. However, her mother convinced her that she should instead learn more practical skills, such as secretarial skills, so that she could help her brother in his legal practice. While Marie Breen did as her mother wished, her artistic gifts and interests were not wasted. Dame Marie, together with her daughter Jeannette, sang with the Brighton philharmonic choir and even had a season in the chorus of the National Opera. Her interest in opera and ballet continued throughout her life.

  Dame Marie also had a prodigious memory. Her daughter Pru related to me how she had an immense collection of books which she had not only read but could remember in detail. It was not surprising that so many of her friends regarded her as a fount of knowledge and information.

  Marie Breen had a wide range of devoted friends. Jean Cheshire, a close friend, wrote a poem for Dame Marie's 90th birthday. Jean Cheshire wrote:

Your interests and involvements did not stop at your front door,

In Parliament and community you courageously held the floor,

You were an inspiration and fearless to the core,

When you saw injustice and the need to change the law.

Dame Marie Breen leaves three children, nine grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. The life of Dame Marie Breen was active and full. It was a good and purposeful life dedicated to her family and those around her and to the general betterment of others. The Liberal Party and, indeed, Australia is richer for her legacy and it is appropriate that we honour her memory in the Senate this evening.