Conversations with Christine
She made headlines earlier this year when it was made public her brother is Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Now, she is making political waves of her own as a Liberal candidate for the upcoming local council elections for the City of Sydney. With her partner Virginia Edwards, Serkan Ozturk meets Christine Forster.
Outed by a newspaper in April as being the gay sister of federal Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott, one could say Christine Forster’s life has come pretty much full circle since then. A private person, the 48-year-old journalist became the centre of chatter around the political world. Here was the country’s potential Prime Minister – a conservative, one-time trainee Catholic priest who only a few years ago claimed to be “a bit threatened” by homosexuality – with a sister who was not only lesbian but also now on the public record of supporting the right of same-sex couples to get married.
Though initially reluctant to speak about The Australian story that thrust her into the national spotlight in the ensuing months, Forster has come to a decision that will force her to speak much more. Believed to be the first openly gay woman to be endorsed by the Liberal Party at an election, Forster will contest the upcoming September 8 local government elections as the number-two candidate on the party’s ticket for the City of Sydney. Over a cup of tea at the Surry Hills home she shares with her partner Virginia Edwards, Forster tells SX the role of politician and public figure is now one that she’s ready for.
“I’ve entered politics now because I’m at a stage in my life where Virginia and I have bought a home. So the domestic side of my life is settled,” she says.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in politics. All through my life I’ve been involved with my local community and because of personal circumstances the time is right for me to give something back to my community through public life.”
The couple, who are long-time friends, have been together since 2008 following Forster’s separation from her husband. Edwards, a registered nurse who works in marketing for a private hospital, tells SX she is excited by the prospect of a successful political career for her partner.
“I think it’s fantastic and I’m very, very excited and behind her one hundred and fifty per cent,” Edwards says.
“She’s always had this belief – in the many, many years that we’ve known each other – that she is committed to giving back, she’s committed to making change.”
Indeed, though she shares some of her brother’s mannerisms and characteristics, there’s a sense Forster perhaps makes a more natural politician than Abbott. She seems more at ease and is warm, personable and, yes, even funny. Late last week, at the launch of a Liberal Party plan to significantly cut back Council spending as well as reduce rates, Forster described herself as a small ‘l’ Liberal and a big ‘L’ lesbian.
“The Liberal plan is for safer streets; it’s for cutting that wasteful spending. We’re about accommodating both bikes and cars,” she says.
“I can talk to any local businessman or woman in my local area here and they will complain about parking, red tape, rising costs, council regulations.”
She suggests a Liberal Council would be able to work effectively with a range of crossover agencies alongside the NSW Government led by Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell.
“We are like-minded people, we’re Liberals, we have common objectives and political beliefs, although we may disagree about some small details – case in point marriage equality,” she says. “It’s not a small detail but it is a detail.”
Forster says City of Sydney funding for both Sydney Mardi Gras and ACON would be maintained at current levels at the very least under a Liberal elected council.
“There would be absolutely no claw back of Council support for Mardi Gras, and if they present us with a good business case for additional support, then absolutely we’d look at it,” she says.
Forster would also like to curb the rates of anti-social behaviour in areas like Kings Cross and Oxford Street by working with the NSW Government on zero-tolerance laws targeting misbehaving weekend revellers, as well as blanket CCTV coverage of trouble spots.
“One of our policies from day one is to have Council fund a one-way shuttle bus out of the Cross as soon as the trains stop running,” she says. “That’s something Council can do and doesn’t.”
Forster says the Liberal team would also look at re-energising Sydney’s slowly decaying gay mile with a concerted strategy involving input from local residents and small businesses.
“Obviously there are loads of issues on Oxford Street,” she says. “Light rail is a state government area but we would support that, absolutely. There are things that could be looked at in terms of increasing parking, street parking. Tidal traffic flows have been raised. But like everything you need to take a pragmatic, sensible approach.”
Pragmatic she may be but it still begs the question: what draws openly gay people such as Forster to the Liberal Party when some of their policies remain discriminatory towards the gay community?
“As a gay person, you join a political party because you agree with the beliefs of the party,” she says. “The fundamental beliefs of the Liberal Party are respect and freedom for individuals, free enterprise and giving people the ability to make decisions about their own lives to better themselves and their families.”
Then what about marriage equality, on which she disagrees with her brother’s unabashed opposition? Is that issue also not one about freedom for individuals and the ability for us to make our own decisions?
“Obviously people like myself and Virginia disagree and think marriage can be between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. But that change hasn’t yet come to our Federal Parliament,” she says.
“Marriage equality is the hurdle for gay people – that’s the only one.”
If Abbott has taken a “discriminatory” stance over marriage equality as his younger sibling suggests, one wonders whether he would carry such attitudes if Forster and Edwards were to get married. In a 2008 article Abbott wrote: “A relationship between two men or between two women may be every bit as admirable as one between a man and a woman but it isn’t the same, and it can’t be a marriage, however fulfilling and loving it might be”.
Forster insists she and Edwards have no current plans to marry but if they did they would invite her brother.
“If Virginia and I were to be getting married that would be a very big and important event for us and our families and of course Tony would come,” Forster says. “He’s my brother.”
Edwards agrees with such an assessment.
“I definitely wouldn’t have an issue thinking that he wouldn’t come,” Edwards tells SX. “Not from the way he has welcomed Chris and I from day one.”
It must sound bitterly ironic to the many supporters of marriage equality that Abbott would attend the wedding of his gay sister in a heartbeat yet be so publicly against other families all across Australia dreaming that one day soon they too could share in such a loving and moving experience. Forster admits she is hopeful things may soon change.
“I would say just keep doing what you’re doing because Tony listens to people. He has a huge heart. He is also a man of great conviction, but he listens to people. He is a very empathetic and compassionate man,” she says.
“I would say to him and to you and to anyone else who wants to affect a change – keep on going at it."
[Pictured] Christine Forster (left) with her partner Virginia Edwards. Photos: Jason Nichol
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