Labor leader Kevin Rudd and IR spokesperson Julia Gillard have fallen into the trap set for them by PM John Howard. By accepting the need to crack down on unionists in order to make Labor look respectable to big business, Rudd and Gillard have given credibility to the Coalition's witch-hunt about "the union threat to the economy".
The script for the last two weeks of the election campaign is now written: the Coalition will be belting out endless hysteria about the "union dominated" ALP, and Labor will be trying to change the subject.
But this scenario was always inevitable, because behind all his talk about "restoring balance and fairness", Rudd basically agrees with Howard about unions and unionists.
For both prime ministerial contenders, unionists are acceptable so long as they abide by the basic rules of the capitalist industrial relations game (any wage increases to be paid for out of productivity gains, no wage indexation, no pattern bargaining). However, they are always suspect — a potential source of disorder and disruption to the profit-makers.
The brutal restrictions in Labor's policy on the right to strike, its vagueness on union right of entry into the workplace and the massive repressive powers it will give to Fair Work Australia are proof of the similarities between the ALP and the Coalition. Right-wing commentators are correct when they claim that Labor's policy proves that Howard has won the battle of ideas over industrial relations.
How should Rudd have replied to Howard's union-baiting? As soon as we look at the alternative it's impossible to imagine Rudd adopting it.
Rudd could have said that "illegal" strikes are nearly always justified. For example, there have been only two occasions in the last four years when workers on my job on the Fremantle waterfront have stopped work — both over serious safety issues, the most recent over a spate of deaths in the industry. Does that make us wharfies "union thugs" worthy of fines of $22,000 a day?
Or take the expulsion of Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union WA assistant secretary Joe McDonald from the ALP. Rudd could have said that if Howard's definition of thuggish behaviour were to be taken seriously then there would be no union official worthy of the name left in Australia. He could have even backed up his own candidates who have muttered resentfully that they are proud to be unionists and to have done their bit to help their members.
He could have added that Howard is completely hypocritical. Why is there no call for heads to roll among bullying bosses? And why not add that Howard is a bit of a bully himself, a war criminal for supporting Bush's illegal and immoral oil grab in Iraq, a war that's cost around a million lives?
Or, on the central argument of who's most endangering "the economy", Rudd could have pointed out that financial shysters like Westpoint boss Norm Carey have caused more economic grief than any unionist.
And he could remind us that "the economy" actually isn't doing well when nearly all the newly created wealth is going to make a tiny super-rich elite even richer.
If Rudd had given that sort of response to Howard, Labor would already be home and hosed. Indeed, on the few occasions that Rudd has produced even the palest imitation of this message (such as when he attacked Work Choices in their televised debate) the worm has gone through the roof.
The killer for the Coalition is Work Choices: it stinks and everyone knows it. That's why the ALP keeps using the phrase "we'll tear up Work Choices" when it's going to do no such thing.
But the sort of full-blooded campaign against Work Choices that would have won the election by now for Labor would also have given tremendous heart to working people and lifted their expectations of an incoming Rudd government.
By the same token it would have been seriously alarming for those like the Business Council of Australia, which is already cranky with Howard's concessions on industrial relations (like the "fairness test").
Rudd has essentially left Coalition attacks on unions unanswered, derided as "negative tactics". But by refusing to engage with Coalition union-baiting and showing such understanding towards corporate nervousness about unionism, Rudd may yet have let Howard out of the box.
One thing remains certain for us unionists who Howard and Rudd both dislike so much. If Rudd wins despite Labor's tactics, we must keep the pressure on his government to repeal all of Work Choices.
As a Socialist Alliance candidate for Fremantle in this election I have issued a challenge to my Labor counterpart, Melissa Parke: "If Labor wins government the Greens have said they will move to abolish all of Work Choices. Which way will you vote?"
[Sam Wainwright is the Socialist Alliance candidate for Fremantle. He works as a wharfie and edits the West Australian branch journal of the Maritime Union of Australia.]