Morris Iemma says Tony Abbott can't take party stripes for granted in state reforms

Former NSW premier Morris Iemma says Prime Minister Tony Abbott should not rely on coast to coast Coalition state governments to deliver his federal-state reform agenda.

Mr Iemma was around the table when Kevin Rudd had the advantage of all Labor premiers and territory chief ministers at his first Council of Australian Governments meeting in 2007.

Mr Rudd's grand vision for national hospital reform fell in a heap less than three years later.

The expected loss of Labor governments in South Australia and Tasmania will gift Mr Abbott the same dominant position at COAG.

Mr Abbott has a stated aim at COAG to ''reduce … the waste, duplication and second-guessing between different levels of government'', offering the example of federal government employing 6000 health bureaucrats despite not operating a single hospital.

In about a month, the Coalition will launch a promised white paper on the state of the federation that will provide information on plans to reduce duplication between layers of government.

But Mr Iemma warned that ''dollars and details'' would trump any advantage of having a single political stripe around the negotiating table, saying there had been ''great enthusiasm'' in the room in Melbourne at Mr Rudd's first COAG encounter.

''I think the benefits are overstated,'' he said. ''It doesn't matter whether they are Labor or Liberal, state governments will make decisions they feel are in the best interests of their state.

''It always comes down to two things: the details and the dollars.''

Mr Iemma pointed to the O'Farrell government's deal with the Gillard government on the Gonski education package as an example of states putting self-interest above political allegiance. ''When [Christopher] Pyne and Abbott started to backtrack [from their pre-election unity ticket on Gonski], it was the O'Farrell government that was first out of the blocks to criticise them,'' he said.

Mr Iemma and former Victorian Labor premier Steve Bracks led the way in backing John Howard's counter-terrorism measures at COAG.

Mr Abbott, campaigning in South Australia on Thursday, again made a virtue of having ''like-minded'' governments across the board. ''One of the candidates for the premiership [SA Liberal leader Steven Marshall] wants to work constructively with me,'' he said. ''The other [Premier Jay Weatherill] wants to fight with me. As far as I can work out … South Australians want a premier who will work with Canberra, not a premier who will fight with Canberra.''

But his window for battle-free COAG meetings could be limited - Victorians are due to vote in November, and the Napthine government is behind in the polls.

NSW and Queensland have elections in 2015, where dominant Coalition governments are expected to survive but take a big hit to their majorities.

In that light, a premier willing to push back against Canberra could be smart politics.

The story Morris Iemma says Tony Abbott can't take party stripes for granted in state reforms first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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