Will Australia's march into the future be tripped up by a slender thread? ''Here we've got an optical fiber,'' says Barry Jones, federal minister for science and technology. Like the university lecturer he once was, he holds a fine glass thread up to the light to make his point. ''And here you've got a coaxial copper cable - which is 300 times as expensive. Now no resource provider in his right mind is going to pursue the coaxial-copper-cable option when he can pursue the optical-fiber option. But here's where people say, 'But we've got a lot of copper, and a lot of silver. And we haven't got the skills here to make optical fiber.'
''My response is, 'You'd better acquire them.' ''
It is a warm evening early in the austral autumn; Parliament is in session in the low-key but brightly floodlit white Parliament House. Mr. Jones is on to debate at 9:45 p.m. And so he has one ear cocked toward the debate monitor as he holds forth on how Australia needs to shed its self-image as colonial quarry and plug into the technological era.
Australians have long counted on their mineral wealth as the key to their ultimate prosperity, and the habit dies hard. Awareness of all the copper in Australia has tended to blind many of its people to the fact that new technology is making that copper less important.
At the turn of the century, Australians (excluding the Aborigines) had the highest standard of living in the world. But the country has been sliding down the list of highest-income-per-capita nations: from 13th place in 1979 to 16th place the following year. And the slide continues. The wakening giant down under is thinking about the need to emulate the industrious elves of Europe - the Dutch, the Swiss, the Danes - and of Asia.
Westpac, one of the major banks, warned in a recent report against ''assuming naively that Australia has some sort of preordained right to be the prime supplier of raw materials and energy to the Western Pacific region,'' and concluded, ''The task is, therefore, urgent for Australia to develop new domestic industries to generate employment on a scale sufficient to offset the long-term decline in the more traditional manufacturing sector.''
''In 1957 there was a 12-to-1 trade imbalance with Japan in our favor; this year it's dead level,'' Mr. Jones says. ''By 1984-85 it will be running significantly against us. They need less and less of our raw materials; we need more and more of their high-technology products.
''We have a number of strikes against us. I think the primary strike, curiously, is that we speak the English language. That has given us a derivative culture, unlike the Japanese, or the Koreans.
''And we tend to have a branch-office mentality.'' Australian industry, so much of it branch plants or subsidiaries of US and British companies, has generally not done its own research and development. Instead it has got them prepackaged from the head office, like boys at school getting brownies from Mom. Accordingly, in Mr. Jones's view, the country suffers from what he calls ''truncated development,'' a dearth of experience in developing products, test-marketing them, adapting them to customer demands.
Universities here do a lot of research, but the country has only a mediocre record in actual development, ''and no reputation at all in marketing,'' Jones says.
He has a five-point program for getting Australia up to speed in the technological age:
* Raise the skill base - get more people educated better. Australia's preoccupation with the good life has interfered with university studies.
* Build bridges between the research institutions and the business community. ''There is no problem of technology transfer when you're talking about a multinational corporation. (It's) only a telex away from the latest technology. But there's a tremendous gap in technology transfer between what's here in an institution, a university, and what's needed in industry.''
* Move from low-value-added production to high. ''We think if we sell wheat at $160 a ton we've done amazingly. We have to produce huge volumes, and our transport costs are enormous.''
Mr. Jones chides the Australian fishing industry, for example, for going after the pet-food market while the Japanese have gone after top-quality tuna fetching upward of $5,000 a fish for sashimi.
* Build up appropriate economic infrastructure.
''We're not well placed in getting our products out, with some few notable exceptions.'' At this point another prop comes out. It is the size, shape, and color of an almost used-up roll of masking tape, but in fact it is a ring of partly stabilized zirconia, PSZ, a ''marvelous industrial ceramic,'' Jones says, developed in Australia. The Japanese, however, have developed something similar called yttrium-stabilized silicon nitride. It has a lower melting point and less stress resistance, among other drawbacks. ''But the Japanese have 150 to 200 products on the market using their ceramic. We have virtually none.''
* Diversify regional economies that now tend to focus on a single (not always healthy) industry.
Mr. Jones has been promoting for two years now a specific program of ''sunrise industries,'' technology-oriented growth fields where Australia has some advantage (solar technology), or which are going to be so important that everyone gets involved with them - robotics or software, for example.
He sees a growing enthusiasm for the ''sunrise industries,'' like the enthusiasim in the late '60s, when the government decided to launch - or relaunch - the feature-film industry, which has scored some notable successes.
''In the days of the silents, we produced quite a lot of films, and good films. And then came the talkies, which were fatal to us, because people couldn't understand the Australian accent.''
That early film industry fits into a larger pattern. ''Curiously, the 1890s were a period of great growth and activity,'' Jones says. The Melbourne historian Geoffrey Blainey has coined the phrase ''tyranny of distance'' to refer to one of the fundamental forces shaping Australia.
''But I think there was a time when the tyranny of distance really operated in our favor,'' Jones says. ''Here we are at the ends of the earth. If we don't take care of ourselves, no one else will.'' And so Australia developed its own expertise in scientific instrumentation, in medical technologies, in large-scale refrigeration, and in aircraft and auto manufacture. That period ended, though, when participation in World War I got Australia thinking of its future in terms of being ''a paid-up member of the British Commonwealth,'' as Mr. Jones puts it.
Prof. Richard Blandy of the Flinders University of South Australia, in Adelaide, concurs with Mr. Jones on the country's need to find specialized niches, technological and otherwise. He observes that one-third of the Swiss labor force is engaged in manufacturing. ''Now that's a high level for a developed country. But there's a metal factory there, for instance, that makes brilliantly machined valves used in hospital anaesthetic equipment - where you have to be spot on,'' he says; there's no room for error. ''This company is a world leader in a very specialized business.''
Australia could profit from this little company's example, he suggests. ''There are heaps of things we might be successful at,'' he adds.