UK and Australia forge new trade links: Talk of new partnership as business co-operation booms in the wake of deregulation

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BRITISH and Australian companies are likely to join forces to promote their trade in the Asia-Pacific region as a result of initiatives at a trade and investment conference in Melbourne yesterday.

Leaders from more than 100 British companies attended the conference, largest of its kind between the two countries and called in the wake of unprecedented growth in two-way investment between them.

Britain is now the second-largest overall investor in Australia and the largest in Australian manufacturing, having doubled its direct investment since 1986.

Australia has become the fourth- largest overseas investor in Britain, ahead of Japan. Australian investment in Britain has increased fourteenfold since 1984. Britain is the biggest destination for Australia's direct foreign investment.

Constitutional ties may be under a cloud as Australia debates becoming a republic, but business links have boomed in the wake of deregulation and the promotion of market policies by London and Canberra over the past decade.

The growth prompted calls at the two-day conference from Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, and Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, for Britain and Australia to build a new partnership based on Britain becoming a base for Australian companies doing business in Europe and Australia playing the same role for British enterprises in Asia.

Mr Keating said: 'Far from declining, the relationship has reached a new level of maturity . . . It underlines the unarguable, but little appreciated, fact that the business relationship between our two countries is stronger than it has been for years and it has the potential to grow much stronger.'

Mr Heseltine said he would ask Sir Derek Hornby, chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board, who accompanied him to Melbourne, to explore with Australia the prospect of jointly promoting opportunities for British and Australian companies in the Asia-Pacific region.

'The increased momentum of Australian-British trade and investment links in recent years may owe something to history but it certainly owes nothing to nostalgia,' he added.

A conference survey prepared by the Allen Consulting Group of Melbourne and John Stopford, of the London Business School, said: 'The importance of the Australia- Britain investment relationship is far beyond the level that could be expected from the sizes of the two economies . . . There are now clear signs of a new partnership.

'As a consequence of the increasingly outward orientation of the Australian and UK economies and each partner's growing involvement with its geographic region, the bilateral relationship has taken on a new dimension.'

According to an Australian British Chamber of Commerce survey, almost 80 per cent of British companies operating in Australia are using their Australian base to service other markets in the region. They include Vodafone, British Telecom, Tate & Lyle, United Biscuits, ICI and BP Oil.

Other substantial British investments in Australia recently have come from British Airways, Cable and Wireless and North West Water, all largely as a result of financial deregulation, privatisation and structural reform undertaken by Mr Keating's government.

The big push by Australian business into Britain happened in the second half of the Eighties, with about 1,000 Australian companies now operating in the UK.

Five of them have made, or are in the process of making, investments of more than Adollars 1bn ( pounds 480m) - Foster's Brewing, National Australia Bank, News Corporation, BHP Petroleum and Australian Mutual Provident Society.

The survey reports: 'The reasons for this have to do with the difficult experiences many Australian businesses have had in the US, the closeness of the business cultures in Britain and Australia and the ability of Australian companies to acquire strong market positions in Britain for amounts that did not involve betting the company.'

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