Little Brother Down Under

March 08, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

GEELONG, AUSTRALIA — Geelong, Australia. -- One out of five automobiles bought in Australia is a Ford -- 124,905 were sold last year -- and most of them are made in three Ford plants employing more than 7,000 Australians. The 2,835 men and women working in the plant here pass under a gate marked with the slogan: ''Driving a Ford Drives Geelong.''

Those Australians making money for the American company were forcibly reminded of their citizenship in the global economy last month when the chairman of Ford, Alexander Trotman, gave an interview in Switzerland saying that if the Australian workers were not willing to work longer hours and take fewer holidays with no increase in wages, the company would move to a cheaper country.

Mr. Trotman dropped his bomb February 18 -- ''Fears on Ford Future,'' headlined the Geelong Advertiser -- despite the fact that the local work force has been cut in half since 1991 and production of cars has doubled during the past three years.

Ford, the Advertiser reported, wants ''a change in the attitudes of workers, unions, management, component manufacturers and state and federal governments.'' Or else.

''I don't want to say it's a bluff; it's a challenge,'' added John Ogden, president of Ford's Australian division. ''If you cannot produce the car cheaper here than you can land it here, who would want to invest a billion dollars here every four years?''

That's the new world, interdependent, interconnected. Ford is one of more than a thousand American companies operating in Australia, a country as big as the United States but with a population of only 18 million. In addition, there are important American military and intelli

gence stations in the country, and an Australian Baseball League, with teams owned by the Cincinnati Reds, among others.

In fact, Australians debate among themselves endlessly whether they might be making the leap from British colony to American satellite. Culturally they're rapidly becoming our little brothers -- Michael Jordan is a national hero, though there seems to be some confusion here about why or what he does -- but cricket is still the national game, and it gets six pages in some newspapers while the Waverly Reds rate about six column-inches.

Keeping the United States around, with ships, planes and men deployed in the Pacific, is, in fact, the principal national-security goal of Australia -- and of several other Asia-Pacific countries. The reason is simple: With the re-emergence of China as a true international power, the smaller countries of Asia are terrified at the prospect that if uniformed Americans leave, Japan will have to rearm -- and everyone hereabouts knows what happens when China and Japan start bumping into each other.

In the small-world department, the foreign minister of Australia, Gareth Evans, was at Oxford at the same time as President Clinton. ''I'm not really an FOB [Friend of Bill's]; I never spent time with him,'' Mr. Evans told me. ''But I was

an FFOB, a friend of a friend of Bill's.''

His friend was Mr. Clinton's roommate, Strobe Talbott, now the U.S.'s undersecretary of state.

It is not as if the Australians and the Americans do not have differences. They do, most particularly over the fact that the United States, the great free-trader, does not practice what it preaches when it comes to wheat and sugar and other agricultural commodities. The United States, for instance, subsidizes the export of wheat, and the alternate global supplier whose prices get undercut is usually Australia, which does not subsidize its wheat exports.

That aside, Australia seems generally content cruising in America's wake -- it sent 47,000 men to Vietnam (398 died there) because the Americans asked them to -- and the Australians' immediate concern is that Newt Gingrich and the new Republican congressional majorities will turn out to be neo-isolationists, a modern version of the conservatives who were opposed to the American entrance into World War II. The nightmare in this part of the world is that the United States will abandon its expensive conventional military presence in the Pacific to save a few billion bucks here or there -- and perhaps use the money for some kind of umbrella of Star Wars gadgetry designed to protect America and no one else.

Australians want to stay under the old umbrella -- they gratefully credit the United States with saving them from a Japanese invasion during World War II -- because they fear new regional wars involving China, Vietnam and Indonesia, wars that Australia alone may be too small to survive without the help of its big brother.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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