A little over two months into office, the Abbott government is facing four big tests on four big issues linked to social views: homosexual marriage, climate change, free speech and border protection. And on all of these issues, it looks likely to pass.
That's because in politics, a pass is not linked to policies but perception, although well-implemented policies have a natural tendency to be well-received by the voting public.
Starting with homosexual marriage, the situation facing Prime Minister Abbott is not as plain as that presented by the general media. The perception is that the Abbott government opposes changing the definition of marriage. But the case is not so clear cut. Abbott is personally against redefining marriage, but he is no longer definitively opposed to a conscience vote.
This is because the Liberal Party room now has a much more socially-liberal lean. Voters rejected Kevin Rudd's plan to legalise 'gay marriage', but in doing so it appears that they actually elected an increased number of Coalition members who support the idea. This has led prominent Liberals, like Malcolm Turnbull, to comment that a conscience vote is likely.
The Abbott government's challenge to the Australian Capital Territory's 'gay marriage' laws, therefore, is not so much about opposing change, but preserving federal powers. But it also happens to maintain faith with conservative-value Liberal voters who will feel confident that they made the right choice. If the challenge fails, these voters will feel comforted by the fact that Abbott 'did everything he could'. If the High Court rules against the Australian Capital Territory, these voters will be delighted, even if a subsequent conscience vote in the Federal Parliament ends up changing the definition of marriage. That's the irony of politics. Conservative-value voters will stick with Abbott, even if he leads a parliament that legislates radical changes to marriage in a way that Kevin Rudd could not. Minor conservative parties have simply been unable to effectively highlight the true position of the Liberal Party room on the emotional and divisive issue of marriage.
On the subject of climate change, the Abbott government has no doubt pleased all those who want a new direction with the recent decision by the Climate Change Minister, Greg Hunt, to boycott the global talkfest in Poland next week. There will be no ministers present and Greg Hunt will instead introduce legislation into parliament to revoke the carbon tax. Combined with the very public axing of Tim Flannery and the Climate Change commission, these actions will satisfy voters who want a seismic shift from government on this issue. This will hold true, even if the Abbott government does proceed with its illogical policy to spend billions on direct action plans to tackle climate change - something that it clearly does not believe in. It's another political tick for the new Prime Minister.
With regards to freedom of speech, Abbott is already getting a big thumbs-up. The Attorney-General, George Brandis, will overturn anti-discrimination provisions that caused problems for prominent conservative commentator, Andrew Bolt. This, on its own, will win the new government serious brownie-points, even if other free-speech issues are not commented on or addressed. There is an urgent need to re-examine these laws at the state and federal level, particularly after a Christian candidate from Victoria, Tess Corbett, was ordered to apologise for her views on paedophiles recently by the New South Wales Administrative Decisions Tribunal. Voters should make judgments on candidate's political views, not unelected anti-discrimination bodies.
However, homosexual marriage, climate change and free speech are secondary issues compared to the biggest problem facing the Abbot government: border protection. Boat people, assimilation and concerns about the nation's security and borders have been the biggest non-economic policy issues for Australians over the last three years.
Abbott does have an advantage over Labor in this area. The Liberals are perceived to be much stronger on these issues than the Labor Party, and this perception is strong because it was also true under John Howard. Even if the Abbott government's border protection policies utterly fail, voters will still believe that things would have been much worse under Labor. This belief will not wear off easily, or soon. So, in the political sense, Abbott is likely to get a pass from voters on border protection, no matter what his government does.
All that being said, the new government has copped heavy criticism for its inability to return boats to Indonesia. As this situation is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, it will seed doubt in the minds of voters who rightly believe that Australia should control its borders. If boats continue to arrive in Australia, this will present a political opportunity for Clive Palmer and any other conservative minor party to make some serious political headway if they are prepared to apply pressure. However, to date Clive Palmer and the minor conservative parties have been silent or made noises that voters interpret as support for onshore processing. A mute approach is not going to captivate any voters, while support for (mostly Islamic) illegal immigrants is a political disaster for any party but the Greens.
Australian voters are broadly conservative on social issues. That is why many other Western nations have legalised 'gay marriage' while it is still under a legal and political cloud in Australia. On the major non-economic political issues, the Abbott government has done enough already to maintain faith with socially conservative voters, even if they would like much more to be done in many areas. This is made much easier because there is no stand out socially-conservative minor party able to attract votes from the Liberal right as the Greens do from Labor's left.
This means that a 'steady as the goes' approach will work for Abbott's first term. Simple, good management and teamwork will work wonders for a public tired of political intrigue and sick of expensive policy disasters. Likewise, a reduced media footprint for the Prime Minister won't hurt him either. Australians don't love politics and a reduction in focus on spin and the 24/7 media cycle will probably also work to smother new opposition leader, Bill Shorten. Australians, who have just voted out a Labor government, are unlikely to be pleased if the Labor opposition leader is the main act in political media coverage.
In the absence of a real threat on the right, Tony Abbott's new government appears to have ticked all the boxes on the controversial issues early into its first term. That leaves it space to concentrate on economics. Given the perceptions around Labor's economic management, it looks like the next three years will be long and lonely for the opposition.