In a former life as an Opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull had two close encounters with true bipartisanship that changed the arc of his political life.
The first almost cost him his leadership. The second did.
As the global financial crisis tore through Australia’s equity markets in 2008 and threatened to wreak havoc on our banking sector, Turnbull took the politically brave decision to extend the hand of consensus.
The former merchant banker backed the Rudd government’s first round of stimulus payments, agreeing with the Keynesian principle that intervening to create aggregate demand at such a time of immense fiscal stress can save an economy from slipping into the mire of recession.
The gesture was greeted warmly by institutions and voters, but attracted considerable blowback from the coalition’s joint party room.
Conservative ideologues took a more Friedmanite view of the economic challenge, preferring austerity and conflict to stimulus and consensus.
Quite apart from that, but equally significantly, they didn’t like the idea of lining up alongside Kevin Rudd on anything.
Their views eventually held sway. Turnbull rejected the second stimulus package as reckless and profligate, allowing himself to survive his first near-death encounter with consensus.
His second came on the totemic issue of climate change. Turnbull felt compelled by the purity of his beliefs to offer bipartisanship on what the then-prime minister dubbed in perfect Ruddish as “the CPRS” — the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
This time the conservatives rose up and lopped off Turnbull’s head, implanting Tony Abbott as leader.
And now, Turnbull faces another significant moment of bipartisan agreement on climate policy that could again have a profound impact on his political fortunes.
This time he is the Prime Minister. But the risks involved appear eerily similar to the last time.
Abbott again lurks as his nemesis, corralling the conservative forces against any consensus on the National Energy Guarantee, which Abbott believes would place too much emphasis on emissions reduction and not enough on price reduction.
Stripped of its layers of political complexity, the NEG appears to be a bureaucratically elegant solution to breaking the deadlock that has incarcerated climate policy since Turnbull’s fatal moment of policy détente in 2008.
It is essentially a framework agreement, establishing a solid foundation upon which future policy decisions of various calibre and intent can be built.
If a Labor government wants to increase the emissions reduction target above the current 26 per cent, then it can do so through legislation.
But, most importantly, it also provides the energy sector with the certainty it has craved for the past decade and more.
All the reports from the energy market regulators over the past year have emphasised that providing such certainty would have political, operational and financial benefits.
For consumers, it would mean an average $150 extra a year in their pockets. That is the estimated retail dividend to households of removing the risk premium built into the system by the lack of policy certainty.
So, it doesn’t really matter whether it is the NEG that the States and Commonwealth agree on, although at the moment that is the only option on the table. It is the mere fact that they would be agreeing on something, anything, that would provide the investment certainty and the retail dividend.
This is the practical benefit of consensus. But the political risks are always high.
Our leaders spend a lot of time talking about bipartisanship, but very little time practising it.
They’ll regularly challenge each other to meet on the bridge of compromise, if not to cross the Rubicon altogether, to serve the greater good of the nation.
But when that opportunity arises, they set fire to the bridge and drain the river.
Why? Because our adversarial style of politics dictates against agreement.
Too often, the major parties place a higher value on causing pain and embarrassment to their opponents for their own political interests, than they do on reaching accord on issues that best serves the national interest.
Hence, the modern art of politics has relied on the ability to ever-so convincingly plead for bipartisanship, while quietly and ruthlessly leading the possibility of agreement down a dark alley to be silently strangled.
Just imagine what would happen if Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg were to get all the States and Territories on board with the NEG. It would completely confound those of Turnbull’s critics who accuse him of being a traitor to his progressive beliefs.
He could quite rightly claim that despite all the criticisms, he’d been able to deliver historic victories on the two defining articles of progressive faith — same-sex marriage and climate change.
And he would have done them both in one term. Not a bad achievement.
But it would also allow Abbott and his conservatives to say “I told you so. This bloke says he’s a conservative but he’s really as wet as the Pacific”.
What of Bill Shorten? His concern, although he’d never admit it publicly, would be that reaching an agreement with Turnbull would allow his opponent to claim a substantial win on climate policy.
In the bare-knuckled contest of modern politics, oppositions see their roles too often as simply opposing. It is all about denying governments wins, not helping to deliver them.
Abbott was the gold medallist. Labor used to call him “Dr No”. But the electorate said “Yes” in 2013 and made him prime minister. He proved that an effective route to power can be forged by partisanship rather than bipartisanship.
And, unfortunately, that seems to remain the political consensus on consensus.