Patrick Staveley looks at how the same-sex marriage postal survey
has split Aussie couples, siblings and generations.
Tony Abbott and his sister, Christine Forster, are just the most high-profile family members disagreeing over the postal survey.
As the November 7 deadline approaches for their same-sex marriage postal surveys to be received by the ABS in Canberra, many Australian families are deeply split over the issue, none more publicly than former prime minister Tony Abbott, who has publicly campaigned for a “NO” vote, and his sister, Christine Forster, who has been waiting for four years to marry her partner, Virginia Edwards.
The discussion surrounding the survey “has a very big impact on my life, and Virginia’s life, and the life of my family”, Forster told Hatch.
Opinion polls in recent years have found that around half to two-thirds of Australians support the legalisation of same-sex marriage. However, the public debate provoked by the much-criticised postal survey – the results of which will be announced on November 15 – has been acrimonious at times.
And the arguments have not been only between strangers in the pub. Couples are divided, as are siblings, and parents and children. Some of the splits are between gay people and their family members; others are the result of different world-views.
‘… it feels much more personal, which makes it all much more difficult.’
Forster, an openly gay City of Sydney councillor, has been at public loggerheads with her brother over same-sex marriage for some years. Abbott’s public views have been characterised by statements such as when, as an Opposition frontbencher in 2008, he said: “Let’s be careful about describing every lasting sexual bond as a ‘marriage’.”
In 2015, Forster – who had announced her engagement to Edwards two years earlier – directly challenged her brother, then Prime Minister, to “allow his MPs a free vote on a cross-party same-sex marriage bill”. In 2016, Abbott said marriage should stay “undamaged” when defending current laws. In response, Forster tweeted: “Allowing same sex couples to marry doesn’t damage the institution in any way. It honours it.”
In August, soon after the postal survey was announced, she criticised Abbott for claiming in a radio interview that “if you de-gender marriage, a whole lot of things come in its wake”. She responded: “Nothing will come in its wake except a lot of people who love each other will get married.”
Forster told Hatch it has been a difficult time. “A lot of this discussion that we’re having in the plebiscite process … has a very big impact on my life, and Virginia’s life, and the life of my family, so it feels much more personal, which makes it all much more difficult. And of course when Tony is speaking about it, it feels even more personal still.”
She added that a video interview which Abbott’s daughter, Frances, gave in support of the “YES” campaign as “a high point for me and Virginia”. In the interview, Frances – another member of Abbott’s family who opposes him on this issue – said: “To see Aunty Chris marry Virginia, to do it here in front of friends and family, it would be so, so special, and I am hoping that’s what I get to be a part of.”
Forster told Hatch her niece’s words were “truly lovely … It was a very heartfelt, very sincere message, and very touching for us. It’s been one of the most powerful messages of the campaign, I think.”
The postal survey was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after the Senate blocked plans for a plebiscite, originally Abbott’s idea. Although it has been widely criticised – including by the British comedian John Oliver, who called it “the weirdest waste of money since every Baz Luhrmann movie ever made” – as of October 31 the ABS estimated that 77 per cent of eligible Australians had returned their ballots.
Not all families are playing out their differences in the public spotlight. Take the Spiteris, a South-Western Sydney family, who are split down the middle. Parents Yolanda and Charlie are at odds: she believes the law should be changed; he wants it to stay the same. Their two sons, Roberto and Antoni, agree with Charlie; their daughter, Jessica, is with Yolanda. There has been many a heated debate at the dinner table.
Sara Scrutton, a marriage equality campaigner from Darwin, says some of her gay friends, to avoid conflict, have refrained from asking their families how they would vote. “I know many LGBT people who are not asking their parents and families how they will vote because they are afraid of their answer. I wish I hadn’t asked, as the answer is not how I wanted and is impacting my mental health daily. Lots of friends and myself, our parents are in their late 70s and 80s, and it is this demographic who are voting no.”
Despite their ongoing frictions, Forster insists her relationship with her brother remains strong.
“When I came out, he and his wife, Margie, were probably amongst the most supportive in my family, certainly in terms of Tony’s respect for difficult decisions that I had to make about how I was going to handle the situation.
“My relationship with Tony will survive this. I’m certain of that because ultimately he and I will put this campaign behind us. This issue will be decided and we’ll all move on.” – Patrick Staveley @Staveley98 editing by Kathy Marks