As unpleasant as it might have been at the time, Julia Gillard would have been chuffed at her hostile reception from unionists, and especially construction industry workers, at the ACTU congress yesterday.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise. How else were CFMEU representatives going to react to words like these:

There is both debate and difference on display as the Rudd Government honours its election commitment to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and replace it on 1 February 2010 with a new specialist Fair Work body.

But as there is debate and difference, I expect there to be one clear point of unanimity. Like me, I am sure you were appalled to read of dangerous car chases across Melbourne City involving carloads of balaclava wearing people, criminal damage to vehicles resulting in arrests, threats of physical violence and intimidation of individuals, including damage to a private residence.

The last time I read of balaclavas in an industrial dispute they were being worn by security thugs at the Melbourne waterfront when the MUA fought its history making battle against Patricks and the Liberal Party.

Balaclavas, violence and intimidation must be unreservedly condemned as wrong by every unionist, every ALP member, every decent Australian.

And the Rudd Labor Government will do everything necessary to ensure that we do not see this appalling conduct again.

The speech was a display of raw executive power from Gillard, bluntly telling the union movement the Government had given them the Fair Work Act and was killing WorkChoices, and that’s all they were going to get.

But this also perfectly suits this Government’s long-term agenda to occupy the centre of Australian politics. Union agitation, heckling and interruption of Gillard, threats to complain to the International Labour Organisation — all serve exactly that agenda, not merely showing the disconnection between the unions and the Parliamentary Labor Party, but suggesting the Government is moderate and cautious in its approach to even the totemic issue of IR. The more criticism from militant unionists, the better.

And perhaps unionists don’t realise that international criticism of Australia is of no moment whatsoever to any government. Indeed, it can be welcome. Australians either dislike or distrust foreign agencies and getting criticised by one has never harmed any politician’s career.

The “Julia among the savages” imagery won’t directly enter voters’ awareness — it received minimal play on evening news bulletins — but it will influence the commentariat, even those predisposed to regard Labor as pawns of militant unionists. And, for that matter, it won’t hurt Gillard’s credentials as the next Prime Minister.

The current Prime Minister played good cop to Gillard’s bad, addressing the conference last night and opening — as he tends to do — with a brief comic routine, in this case about having to miss the State of Origin. The he discussed the national accounts, reeled off the Government’s expenditure on education and infrastructure, referred to the tax cuts, backed the car industry, and talked in vague terms about a union-government partnership for a “21st century social wage”. The subtext was clear — real wage growth can be offset by increases in government spending to assist working families. This may be a clue to the Government’s approach to constraining wage growth once the recovery really sets in.

It’s a lot harder to construct Hawke-era style Accords in an era of enterprise-level bargaining. And it doesn’t augur well for the Government’s commitment to confine future real spending growth to 2%. But Rudd wasn’t heckled or interrupted.

The ultimate union threat to Parliamentary Labor is to cut off the flow of millions of dollars in funding that unions provide. But a Government that has so assiduously consulted with business — including on IR — and has the support of most of the business community on its economic strategy, may be able to make up some of the gaps that appear in its funding. Power tends to attract donations. It’s only when Labor is in Opposition that union funding becomes crucial. And that’s when unions needs Labor the most.

As with climate change, industrial relations is an important policy issue for this government — but not as important as its political value in shaping Labor’s public image as the party of moderate, centrist Australia. Angry unionists berating the female Deputy PM is perfect for that image.