- Federal politics: full coverage
- Abbott has ALP-linked unions in his sights
- Analysis: When ugly side is exposed, it may do Shorten no favours
The ineluctable fact now being absorbed by union leaders is that practices seen as normal in the self-referential world of labour movement politics are about to be gauged against broader community standards.
The royal commission process will adduce evidence relating to criminal behaviour by some officials and employers, but it will also bring to the surface murky dealings such as union use of off-book accounts for electioneering purposes (sometimes even within other unions) known more commonly as slush funds.
Slush funds like the one set up by certain AWU officials in the 1990s through the offices of Slater & Gordon lawyers, and their designated solicitor, Julia Gillard. But there are others funds, too.
Like it or not, scrutiny is coming to the nation's large unions, and with it, much discomfort.
Despite a tidal wave of bleating from union leaders and Labor politicians who should have read this better, it is impossible to gainsay the value of that scrutiny in either public policy or criminal justice outcomes.
Whether you back the royal commission or regard it as a nakedly political exercise by a hostile government, it has just become real.
Labor's belated, reluctant, grudging acceptance of the need for anti-corruption action - albeit through use of existing law-enforcement authorities - has done nothing to forestall the commission and little more for the party's national interest credentials.
While a case can be made that an expensive royal commission is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, and that its terms of reference are transparently designed to maximise the pain for the ALP, neither complaint addresses the substance of the matter.
Culturally entrenched, endemic abuses of power, in some unions, aided by some employers, and with criminal elements thrown in, have poisoned the already low standing of unions. And it has cost the economy and honest union members.
Unions say illegal activity is isolated and can be sorted out by existing authorities. Labor wants a strengthened joint taskforce of the Australian Crime Commission and state police. Legally its proposal might well be adequate. Politically, it is too little, too late.
Similarly, its argument on cost grounds may be valid but feels like a side issue.