SIX days a week, before her daily commitments as a councillor and her full-time job as a journalist kick in, Christine Forster dons a singlet and joggers and embarks from her Surry Hills home early in the morning on a loop around the stylish, yet grungy inner-city suburb.
Crisscrossing some of the area’s well-known streets – Oxford, Crown, and Bourke – not a minute or two goes by without a neighbour, a business owner, or even a high-powered executive on their way to work greeting her or shouting a word of support for the Liberal councillor.
On the day the Star Observer joined Forster for one of her runs, we discovered that it may be just over a year since she successfully ran for public office at her first attempt, but Forster, 49, doesn’t just represent her community.
She is now a key running part of it.
With our jog around the neighbourhood complete, we meet Forster’s fiancee Virginia Edwards, 56, for breakfast at Crown St’s Lemon Cafe. The couple spoke freely about their lives together, politics, the continuing battle for marriage equality – and of course Forster’s brother, Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
With tea, fresh fruit juices and our orders of a bacon and egg roll and scrambled eggs on the table, Forster is in her element when discussing the connections between exercise, sport, the Australian psyche and what it personally adds to her life.
“Sport is part of the Australian way of life, isn’t it?” she asks.
“I do watch a lot of sport. We’re very lucky that we live right here next to the cricket ground and football stadium. I have two sons and Virginia has a son and we all enjoy watching sport. (“Less so me,” Edwards chimes in.)
“I try and run six days a week but I’m so busy these days. Often I may miss a day or two and then I make up for it on Sunday which is normally my day off. I’m absolutely obsessive about it and if I don’t go I get really cranky. I guess it’s because it’s really my downtime. It’s the only time of the day that I’m not talking to somebody or doing something.
“I do a lot of planning and strategising while I’m running as I run quite slowly and put my mind in neutral and it’s fairly therapeutic. I go on a very plodding and methodical pace. It really does also keep me mentally fit.”
For Forster, the past 12 months or so have proved to be a baptism of fire in the public spotlight. A spotlight that has followed her after it was publicly revealed she was gay last April and continued as she snared a seat for the Liberal Party in Sydney Council. A spotlight that has been further intensified during this year’s federal election campaign that saw her older brother become the leader of the country, a position he had coveted for so long.
And through it all, the constant attention to the fact her own brother will not support marriage equality, nor grant his federal ministers a conscience vote on the matter.
“The run-up to the federal election was tough as it put us both in the spotlight which we ordinarily wouldn’t be in. It was tense for my family as it was obviously something that was going to be so big for my brother and his family and my family,” she says.
“There was a lot at stake. He’d been working towards that all his life and working extremely hard, particularly over the last three or four years. That was pretty nerve-wracking stuff.”
Despite their differences on marriage equality, Forster only has admiration for her brother’s performance since he became PM in September – using his handling of the recent Indonesian spying scandal as an example.
“He responded very appropriately. He wasn’t pushed around by the media which is really what they were trying to do,” she says.
“The new government’s approach is that international diplomacy and foreign relations are conducted behind closed doors between heads of states, between foreign ministers, between departments, between governments – they are not conducted through the media.
“It’s one of our most important foreign relationships and I have complete confidence the Abbott Government will be doing everything right to keep that relationship maintained.”
Not that Forster has not had her own controversies to deal with. Being an influential player on Australia’s richest local government, it is fair to say there is no love lost between her and long-serving Lord Mayor Clover Moore. Forster has been a constant thorn in Moore’s side since being elected last September; taking up campaigns against the council such as calling for extra CCTV cameras to be introduced at violence hot spots, and building a permanent museum highlighting the LGBTI community’s contribution to the Oxford St area.
“There was a very clear and loud message… at the local government election last year that the community wanted to see a permanent museum and the community thought it should be at Taylor Square. I have fought long and hard for that and Clover has fought back long and hard. She wants a bike hub on the site, not a museum,” she says.
“This is a council that almost has money to burn. It has $125 million in unrestricted cash and more than half a billion dollars altogether in the bank, and she won’t prioritise a museum?”
Forster herself has not been immune from criticism, with some sections of the Sydney LGBTI community suspicious about her motivations.
“It is a bit of a pressure in the sense that I do feel very committed to getting good outcomes for the gay and lesbian community. It’s my community. Virginia and I feel very much a part of that community. We walk in that community for want of a better way to put it,” she says.
“I would like to think that many of them wouldn’t be having a go at me if they did know me in person. I like to think that if they knew me in person they would appreciate that my motivations are very genuine and that my concern is genuinely for the community. You don’t get into it for the money and you definitely don’t get into if you want an easier life. It’s essentially two full-time jobs. Many people assume I do the council stuff full-time and that does create stress and put you under pressure.”
Another frequent opponent on Council, Labor’s Linda Scott, tells the Star Observer that Forster has proven herself to be a formidable politician and deserves recognition for her strong support for marriage equality.
“In spite of our significant political differences on many issues, I appreciate having another vocal advocate for marriage equality on the City of Sydney Council,” she said. “It’s refreshing to finally hear support on this issue from the conservative side of politics.”
There are rumours that Liberal Party officials may consider her as a state or federal candidate in coming years, and with the redivision of inner-city Sydney seats for the next state election, there is a chance she could run for the newly-created seat of Newtown or even the seat of Sydney, currently held by independent MP Alex Greenwich.
Greenwich, who has closely liaised with Forster on the marriage equality campaign as part of his role as Australian Marriage Equality chairperson, says that no matter what may happen in the future, co-operation will achieve more than combat.
“It’s important for all of Sydney’s representatives to remember that Sydneysiders and the LGBTI community expect us to work cooperatively, not combatively, and deliver outcomes across the range of issues important to Sydney,” he says.
Forster, for her part, says she is concentrating on achieving results for local residents and businesses.
“At the moment I’m really focused on the City of Sydney. That is my focus. I’m over a year into the job and I’m really enjoying it,” she says.
“I’m very passionate about local government and I’m passionate about my community.”
With three children between them, Edwards admits the past year has been a little difficult with the extra strains that come with public life. But she wouldn’t change any of it.
“I am so proud of Christine… She certainly has grown into the role [as councillor] and now has ownership of it,” she says.
The couple, who announced their engagement only a few weeks ago, say they are more determined than ever to ensuring marriage equality becomes a reality in Australia.
“If legislation got through in NSW it wouldn’t be the same. The end game is the federal act. That’s the only way we can have true equality,” Forster says.
“I have absolutely every confidence we will have marriage equality within 10 years.
“If we don’t, I might be a bit angry by then.”