Former City of Sydney Councillor Christine Forster can rank all her favourite drag queens in one breath and extol the virtues of robust political debate in the next. She speaks with Gary Nunn about post-council life – and her desire to run for NSW Parliament.
Having left the City of Sydney Council last year after a nine-year stint as councillor, Christine Forster isn’t done with politics just yet.
She’s now eying her next move, revealing to The Sydney Sentinel that she has a new goal in her sights: NSW Parliament.
Until recently, she very nearly followed her brother, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, into federal politics for the Liberal Party.
“I was seriously contemplating the federal seat of Wentworth,” she says. (Forster withdrew her nomination for preselection at the 2018 by-election in Wentworth following Malcolm Turnbull’s resignation.)
The reason she decided against it is both revealing and endearing. “I don’t think my wife would ever allow me to contemplate federal! She doesn’t want me to be half the year in Canberra,” she says.
There’s a slight lament that she didn’t run this time. “I know I’d enjoy the politics side of it,” she says. “But when I listen to my inner self and weigh it up, I’d hate to be away from home, family and Virginia.”
Virginia Flitcroft is, of course, Forster’s wife – they married in 2018 after a very high profile public advocacy for marriage equality which pitted Forster directly against her vehemently opposed brother, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
A local legend
In addition to being such a significant voice in that campaign and her time on local council, Forster has become something of a beloved personality on Sydney’s LGBTQI scene – particularly on the Oxford Street strip. Nip into Palms, Stonewall or The Oxford and you may see her having a dance – or even more likely, a sing. Forster loves to sing, sometimes publicly. “I like my anthems,” she says, smiling.
“We’re out and about a lot – we love it,” she says of her and Flitcroft’s social life on Sydney’s gay scene. The couple moved from their Bourke Street, Surry Hills house last April to a home that’s even closer to the Oxford Street nightlife action.
“We’re probably too old to be doing that now, but we just can’t help ourselves!” she says. And with that, she goes on to rank all her favourite drag queens, informing The Sentinel where and when they perform, in addition to expressing her excitement at new LGBTQI venues due to open on the strip. “I’ve got my ear to the ground!” she says, laughing.
“State politics interests me because it’s all about delivery”
The state political run may have to wait for now; she’s as busy as ever in her corporate role.
A career journalist since the 1980s, Forster specialised in reporting on the resources sector. She resigned from that role in 2016 to run for Lord Mayor of Sydney. After losing to Clover Moore, she continued serving on council but also took up a role in corporate affairs for an ASX listed resources company. “I flipped over to the dark side, as we journalists would say.”
She sometimes misses journalism but did release her first book, Love, Marriage and Life, a collection of her top articles and speeches, during the lockdown of 2020.
Partly, her run for state politics depends on an opportunity arising, and partly it’s about her finding the time, but it’s a realm in which she predicts she’d become very passionate.
“State politics interests me because it’s all about delivery: building roads, schools and hospitals; whereas federal politics is a contest of ideas,” she says. “At a state level, you can make a difference in people’s lives.”
While there’s no question she’d run for the Liberal Party, she describes the federal party’s recent (ultimately unsuccessful) move to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill as a “completely unnecessary piece of legislation”.
“It was a fop to the irrational, aggrieved right of the party – not somebody like my brother who also saw it as unnecessary – he’s a more rational and intelligent conservative than some of them are,” she says. “All it ever was going to be was divisive.”
What does the saga say about Scott Morrison, I ask her?
“That he’s a canny politician. He was responding to forces within his own party that he felt needed to be assuaged, but they’ve seen sense and pulled it. Ultimately, the right result was achieved. But there was a lot of pain and grief that shouldn’t have happened to get to that point.” (Editor’s note: since this interview was conducted, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has reportedly made commitments to religious groups to revive the Religious Discrimination Bill, if re-elected at this month’s federal election.)
“I wasn’t belled once in nine years!”
Reflecting on her nine-year tenure as councillor, Forster says she misses the connection to the community the most.
“Council meetings could be long and tedious, frankly, and there were a lot of windbags on the City of Sydney Council who liked the sound of their own voice too much!” she says, laughing. “I’m proud to say I was never once belled on any topic in nine years – I don’t think anyone else I was on council with can say that!”
She did enjoy the “politicking” around the meetings. “It can be fun for a political person like me – the cut and thrust of the political process is enjoyable. Sometimes it’s not!”
The important part of the job was helping constituents and the ideas they came to her with. She names 15 minutes free parking on high streets as one of the wins she’s proud of – but her political life to date is largely defined by two words: marriage equality.
“2017 was a nightmare because I was doing constant media – going on Sky News every week and debating Lyle Shelton. That was fun. Not.”
She describes it as a “real slog”.
But ultimately worth it.
“In all honesty, and I think Virginia would echo this, getting married made an enormous difference to our relationship. It’s kind of intangible, but we’ve been happier, more settled and – dare I say it – more in love, since we’ve been married … That says to me, what a good thing we fought for it; a lot of that pain was worth it. It really has strengthened our relationship.”
The couple were together for ten years before getting married.
“That’s not to say we might not flame out in a fiery heap in five years’ time – who knows what the future holds?”
Her brother, Tony
In 2013, when Forster and Flitcroft announced their nuptials in an interview with Sydney journalist Peter Hackney, now The Sentinel’s editor-in-chief, Forster revealed her famous brother would “definitely be there” despite his opposition to marriage equality. The former Prime Minister made good on his promise, attending their wedding in 2018.
She says she currently enjoys a great relationship with her brother – she’s seen him twice in the past week. “Which is probably more than enough!” she jokes. “He’s obviously not as busy now, so we see each other a lot.”
Forster’s magnanimous stance on her brother, after he so enthusiastically opposed her campaign for equality, won her respect across party lines, setting an example of unity and maturity in increasingly polarised times.
“We’re both grown ups,” she says. “There were times during the campaign I was very unhappy about some of the things he was saying. But essentially, I took the position that whenever Tony comes out and publicly says something about same-sex marriage, I will publicly come out and and rebuff it, which I did.”
This, to Forster, is part and parcel of the “cut and thrust” of the political debate – even when about something so personal.
“I remember on at least one occasion when he was Prime Minister having crosswords with him on this issue,” she says.
But, coming from this clearly thick-skinned family, she gave as good as she got.
“I was digging at him more than he was me during the campaign, which he could’ve taken personal affront to – but he didn’t. We respectfully went about our business,” she says.
“That’s what politics is: a contest of ideas without getting personal.”
“Or what it should be,” she says, grinning again.
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.