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

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OTTAWA - Stephen Harper is "a beacon" for conservative political leaders around the world, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Sunday.

The high praise for Canada's prime minister came shortly after Abbott arrived in Ottawa for a two-day visit before heading to Washington.

"He has been regarded as something of a beacon to centre-right parties around the world and certainly I have regarded Stephen Harper as an exemplar of a contemporary, centre-right prime minister," Abbott said after touring the National War Museum.

Geographically, Abbott and Harper are about as far apart as two people can get.

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

Abbott underscored Sunday their shared political beliefs, praising Harper for campaigning against a carbon tax in the 2008 election, from which he emerged victorious.

"Stephen Harper and I are like-minded on this and on many other issues," said Abbott, who won election last September on a platform that promised to repeal Australia's carbon tax.

Harper did not meet with Abbott on Sunday but is to spend most of Monday with his Australian counterpart. 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. On that score, Abbott said he's hoping to learn from Harper's example.

"Certainly there are many things that Stephen Harper has done well but I guess most noteworthy is taking a $55 billion deficit in the immediate aftermath of the (2008 economic) crisis and turning that into a surplus in the coming financial year," Abbott said.

"That's a very significant achievement. It's been achieved without significant social dislocation and that is something that all of us can learn from."

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.

Both Canada and Australia are 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. Abbott's visit includes a business delegation that is attempting to drum up more Canadian investment in Australian infrastructure projects.

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, although he and Harper have met and spoken over the telephone on a number of occasions — most recently in France last week at D-Day ceremonies.

Almost immediately upon his arrival Sunday, Abbott toured the National War Museum, where he recalled how Canadian and Australian military forces fought "side by side" in two world wars.

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

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