Stephen Harper to greet Australian PM in Ottawa with wide open arms

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OTTAWA - Geographically, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are about as far apart as two people can get.

Ideologically and politically, though, they're practically joined at the hip.

Abbott is sure to get a warm welcome when he arrives Sunday for a two-day visit to Ottawa, a stopover on his trip to the United States — a mission to let North American investors know Australia "is open for business."

In a statement announcing the visit Thursday, Harper said the two countries "enjoy a special friendship, underpinned by strong social, political and historical ties."

The two men were expected to discuss not only trade, but regional and international issues of interest, the statement said.

Australia, like Canada, is in the process of enacting a number of austerity measures aimed at eventually balancing the country's federal budget.

Many of the cuts being made down under, however, appear to more closely mirror those made by Canada's former Liberal government under prime minister Jean Chretien in the mid-1990s.

The Abbott government's most recent budget saw billions of dollars in health care and education expenses transferred to state governments over several years, sparking a renewed debate over federal-state relations.

But Abbott may be able to get away with fiscally conservative measures that Harper can only dream of, said University of Ottawa professor Andre Lecours.

"(Abbott) is more conservative than Mr. Harper, I think," said Lecours, describing Australia's electorate as more right-leaning than the majority of Canadians.

"He reminds me a lot of (former Reform Party leader) Preston Manning."

In the past, the Harper Conservatives took campaign cues from the government of former prime minister John Howard, going so far as to send political staffers to Sydney to study the Howard government's political strategies.

The intertwined relationship was brought into sharp focus in 2008 when a Conservative campaign worker resigned after acknowledging that he had plagiarized a Howard speech that Harper gave while he was in Opposition in 2003.

Now, it's Abbott's turn to gain knowledge and strategy lessons from Harper, who has become the elder statesman of conservative leaders of industrialized nations.

It seems Abbott's inner circle has already learned a few things about message control.

Within a few months of taking power last fall, Abbott's office was being accused of avoiding media scrutiny to control the flow of information to the public — an oft-heard complaint about Harper's Conservatives.

Requests for interviews with cabinet ministers need approval from the prime minister’s office. MPs and their staff are forbidden from engaging in political commentary on Facebook and Twitter. Freedom of information procedures have been tightened.

With Ottawa on the verge of balancing its books, Abbott has been eyeing the Harper government's moves to cut spending and bureaucracy as Australia looks to trim a deficit of about two per cent of GDP.

Both countries are also working to increase trade ties with other nations to move away from a dependence on their closest trading partners.

Canada relies on the U.S. for foreign investment and to keep its export sector alive; Australia does much the same with Asia.

The two nations are part of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led initiative aimed at negotiating a free-trade deal spanning the Pacific Ocean — although the outcome of the talks may be more crucial to Australia, said Lecours.

"Australia is much more central (to the negotiations) than Canada," he said. In terms of its links with the Asia-Pacific region, "Australia is right smack in the middle of it."

The Australian government has also slashed foreign aid and is selling government assets.

This is Abbott's first official visit to Canada since being elected to power in September, although he and Harper have met and spoken over the telephone on a number of occasions — most recently in France this past week at D-Day ceremonies.

Almost immediately upon his arrival Sunday, Abbott will take a tour of the National War Museum, said the Australian High Commission.

On Monday he will take part in a roundtable discussion with business leaders from Canada and Australia before meeting with his Canadian counterpart on Parliament Hill.

Organizations: North American, University of Ottawa professor Andre Lecours, Reform Party Harper Conservatives Trans-Pacific Partnership National War Museum Australian High Commission

Geographic location: Australia, Ottawa, Canada United States Sydney Asia Pacific Ocean Asia-Pacific France

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