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Australia's Tony Abbott heads to Indonesia to warm frosty ties

updated 8:51 PM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
FILE: Australia's Tony Abbott and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the APEC Summit in Bali, October 7, 2013.
FILE: Australia's Tony Abbott and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the APEC Summit in Bali, October 7, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Australian, Indonesian leaders to meet for first time in six months Wednesday
  • Relationship soured over phone tapping allegations and asylum seeker policy
  • Australian PM is struggling in opinion polls after delivering painful budget
  • From Indonesia, Abbott will travel to France, Canada and the U.S.

(CNN) -- A four-minute video lampooning your image as an international statesman is not the ideal start to a foreign tour.

But this week, Australia's increasingly unpopular Prime Minister Tony Abbott will put an unflattering viral video behind him as he embarks on a 10-day trip to Indonesia, France, Canada and the U.S.

As the clip, from John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight," spread through social media, the show tweeted: "Australia is a continent divided! After last night's episode, they are unable to decide between hashtags #TonyDumbDumb and #TonyDumDum."

The most recent opinion polls back up the sentiment. According to Newspoll surveys commissioned by The Australian newspaper, Abbott's approval rating has slipped to 33%, down from his highest ever rating of 45% in November last year.

Mending ties with Indonesia

Abbott's foreign tour starts in Indonesia Wednesday when he meets President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the Indonesian island of Batam. It will be their face-to-face meeting in six months, following a period of frosty relations between the two countries.

Relations soured last November amid allegations that Australian intelligence agencies phone-tapped Indonesia's leader, his wife and close allies. Indonesia immediately recalled its ambassador, who has only recently returned to his post.

Asylum seekers on Abbott's trip agenda
New Australian PM Tony Abbott sworn in

"The clear indication from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is that he wants this thing to end on good terms as he completes his presidency of 10 years," Ross Tapsell, a lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University told CNN.

Yudohoyono will step down after two terms in office, when the country votes for a new leader in July.

"He's clearly been known to be a friend of Australia... and he's prided himself on his international statesman image. Certainly as he comes to the end of his reign that will be how he will be wanting his legacy to be reflected, because domestically he's been rating very poorly in the polls," Tapsell said.

Abbott has made it clear too he wants to mend ties, on Tuesday brushing aside revelations that Indonesian journalists were in the room listening to an ostensibly private phone conversation between Abbott and Yudhoyono last month.

Asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Chris Ulhmann whether he knew journalists were listening, Abbott said, "the important thing is the quality of the conversation."

Describing the call as "very genial," Abbott said "there is no doubt that President Yudhoyono is and will always be, I think, a great friend of Australia."

A transcript of the phone call was published on an Indonesian website in early May. A partial transcript published by the ABC on Tuesday revealed a seemingly innocuous conversation about when they'd next meet.

Voter discontent

Abbott's problems at home center on a deeply unpopular budget the government has been struggling to sell since it was announced two weeks ago.

Described as the worst-received federal budget in more than 20 years, it raised taxes, cut benefits, increased university fees and imposed a new fee for medical visits.

Abbott maintains the budget is a painful but necessary remedy to years of overspending by the former Labor government. However, critics accuse him of breaking pre-election promises and imposing spending cuts that unfairly target the poor.

Tough asylum policy

One of Abbott's main pre-election policies was a tougher stance on asylum seekers who arrive in Australian waters by boat.

As well as a continuation of offshore processing, the Liberal leader advocated a "turn-back" policy; approval for the Australian Navy to force boats in Australian waters to turn around "when it is safe to do so."

The policy rankled Indonesia, especially after a Joint Review by Australian authorities found Australian vessels "inadvertently" strayed into Indonesian waters six times between December 2013 and January 2014.

"The Indonesia government has I think quite fairly been arguing for some time that there needs to be regional cooperation on the issue of asylum seekers and indeed the stop the boats policy was seen as a unilateral action," Tapsell said.

During the eight months it has been in power, Abbott's government has succeeded in drastically reducing the number of boats arriving in Australia.

The Prime Minister told the ABC the government's policies had removed a "source of friction" with Indonesia -- "Because none of them are making it to Australia, very few of them are leaving Indonesian shores. The whole point of leaving Indonesia is to get to Australia and if you never get to Australia, why bother leaving Indonesia?"

After the phone tapping controversy, Indonesia called for a "code of conduct" to be agreed before relations return to normal. However it's unlikely it will be announced this week as the document is still being drafted.

Beyond Indonesia

After Indonesia, Abbott is due to attend the official D-Day commemorations in France on June 6, before traveling to Canada for talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, then the U.S. where he'll meet President Barack Obama.

Trade will dominate talks there as Abbott attempts to attract foreign investment with the mantra that Australia is "once again open for business."

Abbott has acknowledged his government faces a "very, very big job" at home convincing voters that the measures announced in the budget will eventually pay off.

The upcoming series of high-profile meetings is Abbott's opportunity to redefine early perceptions of his premiership, and deflect the conversation away from a choice of unflattering hashtags.

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