abott forster split
Australia debates legalizing same-sex marriage
02:41 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Australian PM's gay sister, Christine Forster, said marriage equality is a human right

"This week has been fraught. It's been an emotional week for me," she added

CNN  — 

Weddings can be a stressful time for any family.

It’s particularly the case for Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and his sister, Christine Forster, who’s engaged to her female partner and says she’d rather get married “sooner rather than later.”

Last week, Abbott’s Coalition party blocked any chance that Australia might allow same-sex marriages within his term of government.

On Tuesday, after six hours of debate, party members rejected a “conscience vote,” which would allow a free vote for or against gay marriage, regardless of party policy.

Instead, Abbott said the question should be put to the people of Australia after the next election.

“The Coalition supports the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman, but we won’t seek to bind people beyond this term of Parliament and in the next term of Parliament, it will be a people’s decision,” Abbott said Sunday.

Forster, an elected Liberal party Councilor for the City of Sydney in NSW and vocal advocate for marriage reform, told CNN, it had been an “extremely emotional” week.

“At a personal level it is disappointing because I am engaged to get married to my partner Virginia and I would like to be able to do that here in Australia and I would like to be able to do that sooner rather than later.”

What type of vote?

The prime minister has not made clear how he would put such a question “to the people,” but his ruling Liberal National Party Coalition is debating whether to hold a constitutional referendum, which requires a majority of people in a majority of Australian states to vote yes to pass, or a more straightforward plebiscite, which requires a simpler national majority.

A staunch Catholic who briefly trained as priest before working as a journalist, Abbott has been accused by the opposition Labor party of forcing the country to back his views.

“He said he believes in a conscience vote,” said Labor Party leader Bill Shorten. “What he didn’t tell Australians is he believes in his own conscience and he will force everyone to agree with his conscience.”

Shorten has promised to change the law to allow same sex marriage within 100 days, if he wins office.

“Lots of people – millions of people in our community – have strong views one way or another on this and why shouldn’t we be able to debate this and decide this in its own right without being distracted by the sorts of arguments which you inevitably get during an election campaign?” he said.

Australia’s next federal election could be held in August 2016, at the earliest, or as late as January 2017.

Human not civil right

Forster, who was previously married to a man is now raising her four children with her partner Virginia, said she disagreed with the approach her brother had taken. She said she believed that a decision on whether or not to vote for gay marriage should be up to an individual, not a political party.

“It’s a discussion about marriage. I don’t believe that it should be something that is a set party policy. I think that Australian’s elect their parliamentarians to represent them. And everything points to, in terms of the polls, points to the fact that that most Australians want to see this change happen,” she said.

“I have had some debates with some of my liberal colleagues who argue it’s (marriage equality) a civil right, not a human right, but my own view is that the right to be married goes very much to one’s humanity and I think that we all should be entitled to be equal before the law,” she added.

A June 2015 poll by Essential Research showed that 59% of Australians believe couples of the same sex should be allowed to marry, while an Ipsos poll conducted just last week – from August 13 to 15 – for Australian media group Fairfax showed the figure was a record high 69%.

Thousands marched on city streets before last week’s party room vote. And until Sunday, Canberra’s Airport – the front door to Australia’s halls of power – flashed rainbow colored lights with the words #WeCanDoThis.

The airport’s managing director, Stephen Byron said the campaign was personal, as his brother had been forced to marry his partner in New Zealand to circumvent Australian law.

“It struck me at this time how ridiculous it is that my relationship, and my wife and children, are afforded the protection and support of our government, yet Tom and his family are forced to travel overseas to get married.

“We hope that the rainbow image across the gateway to Australia’s National Capital will have similar impact to lighting up the White House after the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling determining marriage equality in the U.S. in June this year,” Byron said in a statement.

Rumbles from within

Abbott’s decision not to support same-sex marriage has been criticized, not only by opposition party members, but by members of the Australian Prime Minister’s own Liberal Party.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, one of the more outspokenv Liberal Party advocates of same sex marriage, called on Sunday for an open, compulsory vote – “as is our tradition in Australia” – in a plebiscite before the next election.

“An election campaign is about 35 days – I would rather spend every single one of them talking about economic management, how we ensure Australia’s prosperity, how our free trade agreements will drive prosperity, how we are promoting innovation, technology and science and so on.

“Important though the matter is, every day talking about same sex marriage will distract from the Coalition’s core message,” Turnbull wrote in a blog.

For her part, Forster said although she had tried to change Abbott’s opinion, he remained firmly of the view that marriage was something that should only be between a man and a woman.

“If I could influence him I would. But as I’ve said we have a respectful disagreement, a respectful difference of opinion.

“He’s a man of great conviction. I suppose I am as well, a woman of great conviction and if I could swing him around I certainly would,” she said.