A dangerous game of bluff. Kevin Rudd was no doubt pleased this morning with the headlines that resulted from his deputy Julia Gillard paying a visit to the ACTU Congress: “Gillard booed at ACTU meeting” — Adelaide Advertiser; “Gillard refuses to bow to union anger” — Sydney Morning Herald; “Union fury as Gillard talks tough” — Melbourne Age; “Unions threaten Labor on IR laws” — The Australian; “Unions demand to know where MPs stand over Queensland assets sale” — Brisbane Courier Mail. All the papers conveyed the message that Labor has decided best suits its electoral chances — we are no longer a party beholden to trade union bosses.

The thinking behind this strategy is easy enough to see. The best place to win a government majority is by occupying whatever is the middle ground on any issue — to place yourself in the median position of public opinion. With their declining membership and hence relevance to a majority of even working people, trade unions are well out of the mainstream. Having unions criticise you is thus probably a vote winner but there is one major proviso.

The assumption of the Prime Minister’s advisers is that the union movement when it finally comes to a crunch at election time have nowhere else to go but to support Labor. While Minister Gillard is refusing to make all the decisions the ACTU would like, a Coalition Government would be far more anti-union but only if it could get its way with the Senate. Which is where that proviso lies. Ensuring that the Greens have a majority in the Senate — and, even better, that they have a few members in the House of Representatives as well — is every bit s good an insurance policy for the union movement as having Labor in government.

In the campaign which the Rudd-Gillard team won in 1987 it was the union movement that provided a major part of the funds. Next time around, spending even a quarter or 20% of that amount on a campaign for the Greens should be enough to ensure that whether it is Labor or the Coalition with a majority in the House of Representatives it is the Greens with the balance of power in the Senate.

The Prime Minister is playing a dangerous game of bluff.

And how bad are the unions? No trace yet that the modest changes Labor has made to industrial relations law in favour of trade unions is resulting in the kind of industrial upheaval that the Coalition predicted. Figures out from the Australian Bureau of Statistics this morning show the number of days lost from industrial disputes is below that when the Howard Government was still in office.

Some snippets of good economic news. India’s economy grew 5.8% in the first three months of this year compared with the same period last year. This, the BBC reports, was better than had been expected. China this morning’s edition of the English language China Daily said that an executive meeting of the State Council presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday was told that, signaling a recovery in China’s employment market, 3.65 million urban residents found new jobs in the first four months of the year.

Growth in these two major Asian economies will largely determine whether Australia continues to stay out of the world’s generally recessionary clutches and here there are also some encouraging signs with a range of metal prices having rallied from their lows over the last year as these graphs from the London Metal Exchange show:

Another major export income earner — the tourist industry — also appears well and truly over the worst.

Population growing rapidly. Annual population growth rate for the year ended 31 December 2008, at 1.91% was the fastest annual growth rate for a year ended 31 December since the Australian Bureau of Statistics started calculating an estimated resident population (ERP) back in 1971. The figures out this morning put the 31 December 2008 population at 21,644,000 persons, an increase of 406,100 since 31 December 2007. Natural increase for the 12 months was 152,700 persons, an increase of 3.1% on the previous year. The net overseas migration estimate was 253,400 persons.