The Australian Opposition leader Tony Abbott reaffirmed his disagreement with same-sex marriage yesterday, quashing hopes by campaigners of a change of heart in the wake of revelations that his sister, Christine Forster, is in a gay relationship.
Forster spoke about her private life for the first time at the weekend, saying Abbott had been supportive when she quit her long-standing marriage after falling in love with her present partner, Virginia Edwards, four years ago.
But the Coalition leader told reporters he had no intention of reconsidering his position on gay partnerships, or of allowing his MPs a free vote on the issue.
Referring to his sister, a mother of four, he said: "We've had many interesting discussions, we'll keep those dis-cussions going, but fundamentally I want to be a politician that keeps my commitments. We went into the election with a position; as far as I'm concerned that's the position we'll keep."
Forster and Edwards had sought to keep their relationship private, but were photographed together last year brandishing placards in support of gay marriage at an event at the Sydney Opera House. In a statement to the Weekend Australian, Forster said: "In response to the media interest ... I've decided to publicly confirm that I am gay and am in a committed, live-in relationship with Virginia."
Abbott had tried to shield his sister from the media glare, according to the magazine, remaining silent even when same-sex marriage activists urged him to "get to know" some gay people. He paid tribute to Forster yesterday, saying: "She's had some very difficult and complex issues to deal with, and I really admire the way she's handled it ... with courage and authenticity."
Campaigners said the revelations were cause for optimism. "Advocacy from loved ones is by far the most effective way of changing hearts and minds," said Alex Greenwich, spokesman for Australian Marriage Equality. "Ms Forster proves this issue is about family, love, equality and not politics. It gives us hope that there is someone at the Abbott dinner table putting the case forward for same-sex marriage."
Senthorun Raj, senior policy adviser to the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, called on Abbott to allow Coalition MPs a conscience vote when the issue goes to the federal Parliament. It was plain, he said, "the issue of marriage equality cuts across a range of families and communities in Australia".
Forster and Edwards were married when they met through the school their sons attend. Abbott was "absolutely flabbergasted" when Forster's marriage ended, he told the Weekend Australian, because he thought she had a "fantastic partnership".
However, he went on: "For Chris, it was replaced by something else that is marvellous. She did something brave, authentic ... I can respect that even if I can't in every sense understand it ... I've come to the view over the years 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."
At the Opera House, Forster held a placard stating: "I love her! Marry me???", while Edwards had a sign that said: "And I love her. Live with it!"
Abbott and his wife, staunch Catholics, have "warmly welcomed" Edwards to the family, says Forster.