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Can Gillard make history?

This is a prime minister and a government who know they're going to lose office in four months and are trying to build their legacy. It's a tricky business, attempting to shape the story that will eventually settle about today. Impossible, really.

I'm not referring here to the recent media meme about the government 'locking in' expenditure over 10 years. New governments can do whatever they want (parliament permitting) and the next one will have a commission of audit to till the soil for precisely that.

They'll shake their heads and express bewilderment at the state of the finances even they didn't think it'd be this bad and probably have a mini-budget and carve $10bn or so out of 2013/14 spending.

Will they break election promises? Of course they will. And will they suffer politically? A bit, but most of the blame will go to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

But as they do an almighty job on their predecessors they'll have to exercise some care.

When in 1983 Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (mostly Hawke, as Keating was not yet confident in front of the camera) went through this ritual their main target was the Fraser Coalition government but they were also eager to distance themselves from the Whitlam years that had ended seven and a half years earlier.

Any collateral damage on that was tolerable. In fact their eventual narrative came to be they were making up for the sloth of past governments of both persuasions.

In 1996 John Howard and Peter Costello had 13 years of Labor in their sights, but protecting Fraser's legacy was not a priority either. (Despite Howard being Treasurer for the last few of the Fraser years.)

The team that will arrive in September has largely represented itself as a continuation of the Howard years.

That finished less than six years ago. Preserving that as they wield the axe might be tricky. Or maybe Howard will be a casualty of the new narrative. Might be interesting to watch.

One determinant of the eventual political story is beyond their immediate control: government revenues.

If revenue grows in dollar terms by 47 per cent as it did over the first five years of the Howard government, then the budget will race back to surplus. The repairing Labor's damage story will have a beginning, middle and end.

But if it's more like the Rudd and Gillard governments' laggardly 19 per cent over their first five, the heroic financial turnaround tale will have to be postponed.

How would Gillard like to be remembered?

Ideally, presumably, that she took the hard decisions in the nation's interests and suffered the electoral consequences.

That she was 'tough' (which she is).

The first female prime minister of course. The one who put a price on carbon, introduced the national disability insurance scheme, ideally also Gonski (if anyone can actually explain what that means), kept the country out of recession during the global financial crisis (although that was under her predecessor Kevin Rudd).

Only the second Labor government to successfully get a referendum through, on local government. (That now has Buckley's and may not even make it to the vote.)

An important determinant of historical 'greatness' is electoral success. One-term governments need not apply; two-termers may if they can mount a case.

This will be the first two-term government since Gough Whitlam's. History tends to award him points as a moderniser but then takes away many more for economic incompetence and general administrative chaos.

The Hawke-Keating rehabilitation only came about when Labor was back in power again. (Note however that Keating's name was absent from Abbott's bipartisan lauding of past governments in the other night's budget reply.)

If you think the Labor government is on the nose now, just wait until late September, October and November. The names of the Rudd and Gillard governments will be dirt for years.

But in a decade or so, who knows?

The history-making process is unpredictable.

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