Illustration: Michael Mucci.
If you were a conspiracy theorist it would be easy to see Tony Abbott's actions against unions as revealing his true dastardly intentions despite all his soothing statements before the election.
But I see it just as standard Coalition behaviour, motivated more by a search for political advantage than by a desire to free the economy from the scourge of unionism. Indeed, when the union movement finally expires - which can't be too many years off - I'd expect the Coalition to shed a private tear at the loss of such a useful whipping-boy.
When you contemplate the royal commission into union corruption, remember that, since the days of Malcolm Fraser, all Coalition governments set up such commissions. We know they sometimes backfire against the government or employers, and rarely lead to the conviction of many unionists. Royal commissions are about raising a hue and cry, not getting wrongdoers into jail.
As politicians on both sides well know, unions have long been on the nose with the public. This is partly because it's always easy for proprietors of the established order to portray unions as troublemakers and partly because of the public's race memory of the way the unions were always staging disruptive strikes in the decades up to the mid-1980s (yes, that long ago).
The Coalition wouldn't still be so keen to press the public's anti-union button, however, if the unions weren't still so closely associated with its political opponent, the Labor Party - a linkage that, if anything, strengthened as Julia Gillard sought to shore up her leadership against the ever-present threat from Kevin Rudd.
This is not to imply there's no corruption in the union movement. There is, just as there is among businesses - and politicians, for that matter. Just how widespread corruption is in the union movement is hard to know and the royal commission is unlikely to tell us, though you can be sure the relatively few instances it uncovers will be highly publicised.
A second ulterior motive is the Coalition's resentment of the way the unions channel big donations to Labor, but never to it. By contrast, business will donate to Labor rather that the Liberals whenever it thinks Labor's likely to win.
And, of late, we've seen signs of a third level of political prejudice against the unions. How is it the ''end of entitlement'' seems to apply far more to manufacturers than to farmers or formerly government-owned airlines?
Could it be because highly protected manufacturing tends to be highly unionised, with the unions playing a leading role in fighting for continued government assistance, particularly when Labor is in power?
It's worth remembering that manufacturing is the traditional base of the union movement. Manufacturing's declining share of total employment is part of the explanation for the movement's decline.
Manufacturing's further decline will hasten the eventual demise of the unions - or perhaps their relegation to the public sector. Just 13 per cent of private-sector workers are union members, compared with 43 per cent of public-sector workers, making 18 per cent overall. But note that only 19 per cent of manufacturing workers are members.
You may think the public's strong reaction against WorkChoices contradicts the idea that unions are on the nose. Not really. The unions' advertising at the time rightly alerted part-time and casual workers to the greater scope for unreasonable employer behaviour under WorkChoices, but while this made many anxious it led few to conclude the answer was to join a union. For many workers, unions are a relic from a bygone age.
Remember that the Coalition's attempt to extract political mileage from the unions, bad employers' attempt to blame the unions for their poor relations with their own staff (e.g. Qantas) and the national dailies' attempt to suck up to big business, all involve leaving the public with the impression the unions are a much bigger bogyman than they actually are.
What the people with the hidden agendas will never tell you is that more than 80 per cent of enterprises don't have a union presence. Only about 40 per cent of employees are covered by collective agreements, some of which have been drafted by employers without union involvement.
If the government really did stamp out union corruption, or prompt Labor to cut its ties with the unions (thus depriving many union leaders of an attractive career path), or shame union leaders into giving up their lucrative fees as trustees of industry super funds, it would get the union leadership back to its knitting, giving their movement a better chance of surviving.