BRENNAN Thomas Cornelius

Position
Acting Attorney-General
Years active
For periods during 1935–1936
Portrait of Thomas Cornelius Brennan - From Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate (Volume 2)

THOMAS CORNELIUS BRENNAN KC 1867–19441

Thomas Cornelius (Tom) Brennan was born in Sedgwick, near Bendigo in Victoria, apparently early in 1867.2 The seventh of the 13 children of Irish-born parents, Michael Brennan, a farmer and municipal officer, and Mary, née Maher, Tom attended the local primary school and Bendigo High School. He completed an apprenticeship as a typesetter with the Bendigo Independent, before moving to Melbourne to work as a printer with the Argus. Transferring to the newspaper's reading staff he became a junior reporter, later rising to the position of cable sub-editor. At various times during this career he worked with his brothers William and Henry who were also journalists. Studying part-time, Tom Brennan matriculated on his fourth attempt in 1892 and completed his law degree at the University of Melbourne in 1900. At the age of 35, on 15 April 1902, he married Florence Margaret Slattery at St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral in Melbourne.

Resigning from the Argus when he was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1907, Brennan went into legal practice. He retained his links with journalism, in 1910 becoming a founding member of the Australian Journalists' Association and on occasion acting on its behalf. Gaining a reputation as an outstanding criminal lawyer, he received many briefs from his younger brother Frank's law firm. On 1 August 1911 Tom Brennan moved the admission of the youngest member of the family, Anna, the second woman (and the first Australian-born one) admitted to legal practice in Victoria.3 Always prominent as a Catholic layman, Brennan was one of the founders and first president of the Catholic Federation, a committee member of the Australian Catholic Truth Society and the first lay president of the university's Newman Society. Until he resigned in 1917 – after clashing with the influential Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, over the issue of conscription, which Brennan strongly supported – Brennan was editor of the Catholic Advocate. In 1922 he published a book, The Gun Alley Tragedy, based on his experience as junior defence counsel in the trial of Colin Campbell Ross, whom Brennan believed to be innocent of the murder for which he was hanged.

Made a King's Counsel (KC) on 7 August 1928, Brennan consolidated his status as an authority and commentator on constitutional issues, and was instrumental in a reform of the High Court practice relating to criminal appeals. He qualified for a Doctorate of Laws at the University of Melbourne in 1931, and published his thesis under the title Interpreting the Constitution4 in 1935.

Anti-socialist and politically much more conservative than his brother Frank, who was the long-serving member for the federal seat of Batman from 1911, Tom Brennan stood unsuccessfully, first as a Liberal and later as a Nationalist, for Legislative Assembly seats in four elections between 1911 and 1921. Ten years later he was chosen at a joint sitting of both houses of the Victorian Parliament to fill a casual Senate vacancy. Entering parliament in Canberra in May 1931, he was successfully re-elected in December that year, at the election in which the Scullin government was defeated and Frank temporarily lost his seat.

Serving in the Lyons United Australia Party government, Tom Brennan was selected as the second chairman of the bipartisan Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, established in March 1932 to undertake systematic parliamentary scrutiny of subordinate legislation. As the Minister Assisting the Attorney-General, in September 1936 he argued against a contentious legislative amendment which would have required high-level certification within the Attorney-General's Department that draft regulations were within the scope of the relevant regulation‑making power, on the grounds that the amendment's effect was already being achieved in practice under existing law. Still significantly increasing the drafters' workload, Attorney-General Menzies gave an undertaking that his department would examine all subordinate legislation before promulgation.

In the Lyons coalition government formed in November 1934, Senator Brennan was appointed minister without portfolio assisting the Ministers for Commerce and for Industry. He acted as Attorney-General for lengthy periods during 1935 and 1936 while Menzies travelled to England, and also acted as Minister for Industry during Earle Page's absence in early 1936. Most of the advices Brennan contributed to the Opinion Book as acting Attorney-General were on union issues, particularly those to do with the public sector. One of his opinions published in Volume 3 concerned Commonwealth power to establish compulsory wheat pools – a subject of frequent consideration during that parliament, which had set up a royal commission on the wheat, flour and bread industries and passed several new laws related to wheat bounties and wheat growing.

Brennan was a measured speaker, unassuming but determined, applying his sharp legal mind in parliamentary debate. A staunch constitutionalist, on occasion he showed that he was prepared to place pertinent principles before political affiliations. Defeated at the general election on 23 October 1937, he left the Senate at the expiration of his term on 30 June 1938.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 he volunteered his services and was made a legal adviser to Commonwealth government departments engaged in the war effort. Before the war ended he died, aged 76, at his home in Caulfield, Melbourne, on 3 January 1944. Following Requiem Mass at St Colman's Church Balaclava, at which Archbishop Mannix officiated, Tom Brennan was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Brian Wimborne, 'Brennan, Thomas Cornelius (1867–1944)' in Ann Millar (editor), The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Volume 2, 1929–1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2004.
    • Kevin Ryan, 'Brennan, Francis (Frank) (1873–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brennan-francis-frank-5347/text9041, accessed 24 February 2012.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. No birth certificate located in the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages on-line. Date calculated from his marriage and death certificates.
  3. Victoria was the first state to admit women to the practice of law in 1903 – the last was Western Australia in 1923.
  4. TC Brennan, Interpreting the Constitution: a politico-legal essay, Melbourne University Press in association with Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1935. (NL 342.94 BRE.)

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