news

Public people, private lives

Tony Abbott's sister Christine (left) with her partner, Virginia Edwards

When I was in year 5, I saw my teacher, Miss Hansford in the supermarket carpark. I was befuddled. She buys groceries? She DRIVES a CAR? She wears JEANS? It was so disconcerting to see her out of her natural habitat. I didn’t like it one bit.

I feel similarly discombobulated when I get a glimpse at the real life of politicians. The idea of them sitting around a dinner table with their family. Helping the kids with homework. Vacuuming.….It makes it harder to go back to seeing them as a two-dimensional talking head.

Tony Abbott is one of the clearest characters in politics. There’s no confusion about who he is or what he stands for. He’s the pugilistic conservative; brutally effective in destroying the government. He is traditional, religious and pragmatic.

Margie Abbott and the three lovely Abbott daughters are regulars at his side – part of the Tony package.

But now, there’s his sister.

Christine Forster is Tony Abbott’s little sister. She is gay.

It turns “brand Abbott” upside down. The man who strongly stands against gay marriage, has a little sister who is living with a woman she’d very much, like to marry.

Carl Katter
ADVERTISEMENT

When Bob Katter’s gay brother Carl took his story to the media, it was an airing of very dirty family laundry. Carl’s rage at his brother’s condemnation of gay marriage has caused a very public split between the brothers.

The Abbott family has acted very differently. From what we know of the Opposition Leader, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he had (like so many families do) turned his back on his sister. But the would-be Priest has embraced his sister’s lifestyle. He loves her, no matter what.

In an interview over the weekend, Tony Abbott spoke about what happened when Christine decided to leave her husband for a woman.

“These things happen,” said Abbott. “The marriage ended. For Chris it was replaced by something else that is marvellous. She has regrets but she did something brave, authentic, something she felt had to be done. I can respect that even if I can’t in every sense understand it … I’ve come to the view over the years that the only side you can take is that which tries to maintain relationships. Getting judgmental in ways which damage relationships does no one any good.”

His sister Christine says she loves her brother and that he showed her sympathy and acceptance when she came out to him. He’s been, by all accounts, a really good brother.

“My brother and I have always had a strong relationship and he respects and supports me and my lifestyle choices,” she said.

“Tony, Margie and their daughters have warmly welcomed Virginia into their family.”

But she hasn’t been able to change his mind on the issue of gay marriage; it’s been a topic of heated conversation between them. Christine says she’ll keep working on him, and Tony says he’s not likely to change his mind. They are a (fairly) regular brother and sister. They’re allowed to disagree.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Chris and I have always got on very well. She’s a very level-headed, down-to-earth, pretty tough-minded individual. She’s more politically centrist than I am but she’s no bleeding heart lefty either. Her views are well thought through, well formed, balanced and decent. Recently we’ve argued over gay marriage. Not a nasty argument – more of a discussion than an argument. I think she understands my position,” he said.

The Coalition made a commitment before the last election that they wouldn’t make any changes to the marriage laws. After months and months of calling Gillard a liar, it’d be politically perilous for Tony Abbott to go back on his word on this. The cries of hypocrisy would be deafening.

Both parties are too scared of the backlash from “middle Australia” to move forward on same-sex marriage… Labor has allowed a conscience vote (meaning they won’t force their member to vote along party lines) but they won’t have the numbers to change anything. The Coalition always has the freedom to vote according to their conscience, but they too wouldn’t have enough members to make a difference – but it’s not up to the Coalition right now anyway.

When questioned on the issue in the past Tony Abbott has always picked his words carefully to show that he isn’t against gay people, but, as a staunch Catholic, he can’t agree that “marriage” could be defined any other way than a union between a man and a woman.

When asked about the issue during the 2010 election, he said, “I hope I would always find it in my heart to treat people the way everyone should be treated – with dignity and respect. And I think people who know me well, who are gay, would be only too happy to testify to that.”

In hindsight, that statement is a little more poignant.

In his book, Battlelines, Tony Abbott wrote: “Politicians are volunteers. They choose their life. Families are conscripts. Exposing your family to public notice is part of the inescapable downside of being in public life.”

There must have been a number of times when it would’ve been on the tip of his tongue. When people were laughing at the suggestions that Parliament’s tough guy understood the hardships faced by the gay community. When people told him he needed to get out of the Church and get to know some gay people. When people told him he was shut off from the real world and stuck in the past.

It would have been terribly easy for him to say, “You don’t know everything about me. I do know what I’m talking about. My sister is gay.”

But he never did. He kept her confidence to protect her. Like any other big brother would do.

Lauren Dubois is Mamamia’s Canberra-based political contributor. You can follow her on Twitter here

FROM OUR NETWORK
00:00 / ???