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The Pacific : The California-Australia Connection : Trade Opportunities Abound as in the Days of the Old West, Ex-Envoy Says

June 19, 1989|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

Retired Ambassador to Australia Laurence W. Lane is back from the outback and has re-established himself in the publisher's suite of Sunset magazine in Menlo Park.

But the 69-year-old Lane is not about to become immersed in eggplant recipes, drip irrigation charts and other homespun tips for the how-to monthly started by his father. After nearly four years Down Under, Lane has returned with a message. Very loosely translated, Lane's sermon is that Australia is not all koalas, kangaroos and crocs.

Sure, the continent nation floats 8,000 miles and six time zones beyond the fringe of California's shore. And, perhaps, light years do separate this nation of 15 million residents from middle America.

But Lane, who has held an appointed post in every presidential Administration since Lyndon B. Johnson's, sees a great affinity between Australia and the western United States, particularly California. And he says there is every reason to promote and nurture those ties.

Business is an obvious place to start.

Like the Old West

Beyond the overt similarities of a common language and almost interchangeable climates and terrain, Lane says Australia has a rugged, forward-looking spirit reminiscent of the early West, when the frontier was still open, land was plentiful and natural resources were unharnessed.

"Australia today is not unlike what this country was 100 or 150 years ago as settlers streamed across the prairie and the Rocky Mountains," Lane says. "The cowboys and settlers were lured by a promise, the same kind of promise that's alive in Australia today."

Lane, who looks like the quintessential U.S. senator with his distinguished silver hair, argues that this similarity of backgrounds makes it easier for businesses in the western part of the United States to understand the freewheeling, risk-taking spirit that he observed in Australia. And he argues that this kindred spirit is also what has made the California life style so attractive and so copied among Australians of all ages.

Australia has already become a modestly important trading partner of the United States. According to the Australian Trade Consulate in Los Angeles, about $10.5 billion worth of goods were exchanged between the two countries last year. About two-thirds of the total was exported by the United States to Australia; the remainder was exported by Australia.

Australia's exports to the United States consist almost exclusively of such basic materials as frozen beef and shellfish, wool, petroleum products and metals. Trade officials say they would like to narrow the trade gap with the United States by expanding these exports and by developing new products for export that one trade official said could "create demand" for Australian goods.

Despite the push to spur exports, Gerry Watkins, the senior trade commissioner at the Australian consulate, says demand remains high in his country for U.S. goods, particularly "life style goods," such as clothing and music, from the West and California. Already, Australia is the single largest importer of California walnuts and it imports large quantities of raisins and citrus fruits grown in the Central Valley. In fact, Lane says that instead of putting out jelly beans--so popular with other members of the Reagan Administration--he kept yogurt-covered raisins and chocolate covered walnuts in his desk at the ambassador's mansion.

"There is much commerce to be done across the Pacific," Lane says. "And California has, by all odds, the most strategic position to take advantage of the agricultural, service, high-tech and manufacturing opportunities there."

Urges Caution

Now that he's back in the family publishing business, an enterprise that also includes how-to books and video tapes, Lane will renew his involvement in local and international commerce groups. He is rejoining the Pacific Basin Economic Council and the Pacific Forum in Hawaii. And he is making himself available as a consultant to businesses interested in furthering their operations in Australia.

But his message to American businesses will be to tread lightly as they try to take advantage of the trading opportunities in Australia.

Lane warns that American companies must be sensitive to the growing wariness abroad of too much foreign investment, particularly from the United States. As elsewhere, Australians, he says, prefer joint ventures and other types of partnerships with local citizens and companies over outright unilateral investments that offer little opportunity for the local residents to participate in the enterprise.

"It's important for the U.S. to recognize that Australians resent and will strike back at being treated as the little brother to the U.S.," Lane says. "Australians resent being perceived as backward and in the shadow of the U.S."

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