THE AUSTRALIANS By Ross Terrill Simon and Schuster. 354 pp. $19.95

A BOOK THAT is part autobiography, part travelogue and part political debate is a difficult feat to pull off. Henry James managed it in The American Scene, a book written to describe what the novelist saw and thought on his return to the United States in 1904, 30 years after leaving to live in Europe. When James landed at Hoboken, N.J., he promised himself and his readers that he was returning with a "freshness of eye, outward and inward"; he swore he would "vibrate with more curiosity" than a visitor who was foreign to America.

It wouldn't be fair to blame Ross Terrill -- returning to his native Australia after an absence of 20 years in Boston -- for lacking James' acuity of observation or the polish of the Jamesian style. The objective of his book is ambitious, and one in which the U.S. audience has shown an especially keen interest recently. Who are these Australians, these crocodile-skinners, Oscar-winning film directors, and America's Cup winners and losers? Is this, as the author hints, a "paradise on the periphery," "the last frontier," "the America of the 21st century"?

Unfortunately, the book doesn't answer these questions with the freshness and curiosity Henry James advised for a return to one's homeland. Instead, the author appears to have gone back to Australia to settle grudges and score points against those elements of Australian society that had frustrated him 20 years ago to the point of inducing him to leave, stay abroad and, ultimately, change his citizenship.

In 1988 Australia will reach the 200th anniversary of British settlement; the planned year-long celebration has already stimulated a flood of books, television series, museum exhibitions and films, raising many of the questions about national identity that concern Ross Terrill. In 1984, when he was gathering the material for his book, the debate had only just begun. Now, three years later, Australians have gone deeper into their history, and are looking more skeptically into the future, than the people who appear in this book.

Oddly, it does not seem to be written for an Australian audience at all. Terrill interviews almost no one under the age of 40, and hardly any women. He very precisely records the names of the hotels and restaurants through which he passed on his 22,000-mile journey around the country, plus the labels of every Australian wine he tasted. Yet he visits no hospital, factory, prison, school, farm or military base and avoids even the deservedly great tourist attractions.

Terrill decries Australian productivity without once meeting the men and women who invent and sell the latest in guided missiles, over-the-horizon radars, drip irrigation equipment and in vitro fertilization techniques. He berates Australian government bureaucrats and trade unionists, but never mentions what they say in response -- if they got the chance. He skirts the serious problems of drug smuggling, corruption and violent crime in the cities, unprecedented in Australian history. But the reporter stops short of the experts -- the police, the drug addicts and racketeers in and out of prison whose stories have been told in several sensational court cases and parliamentary commissions. When Terrill describes Australians as cynical, the reader deserves to know more of what they know that makes them this way.

Terrill is right to recognize that Australia is facing serious problems that are destroying the standard of living and the national consensus on values. But he points U.S. readers in the wrong direction with his snippets from the Australian debates on economics, defense, politics and multiculturalism -- the words bureaucrats have come up with for describing ethnic and racial conflict.

In Darwin, Terrill meets the chief minister of the Northern Territory, whom he judges "a shrewd visionary" on the future of tourism in the Australian economy. "We should be planning to bring thirty million tourists a year to Australia," the author quotes the minister approvingly. Thirty million tourists a year in a country with a population of 14 million? Terrill suggests that only the fanaticism of long-haired environmentalists and the inertia of an authoritarian government bureaucracy stand in the way of this lucrative dream. This is preposterous. The United States, with a population of nearly 240 million, plays host at the moment to just 25 million foreign tourists a year. If you ask the U.S. National Park Service how many visitors the Grand Canyon can cope with in a year, the answer is no more than 3 million people. Is the National Park Service thought fanatical for judging that this is as many tourists as a natural environment can bear?

The Australians presents an argument Americans will recognize. Ross Terrill believes that the Australian trade unions, the Labor Party, the women's movement, the environmentalists and the federal government bureaucracy all stand in the way of economic advancement on the U.S. model. This is a strong echo of Reaganomics. Even disregarding the lame-duck status of Reaganomics in its native land nowadays, the Australian economy cannot, and should not, be compared with the U.S. economy.

A China researcher at Harvard can be pardoned for not being an expert on the international economics of depleting mineral resources; in economic terms, Australia is much more like Algeria than America. But Ross Terrill ought to know better than to quote approvingly those Australian businessmen who think the way to emulate Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia is to get government off their backs. If Terrill doesn't know how much big government directs and subsidizes the export economies of East Asia, he need only ask the U.S. Commerce Department or U.S. trade negotiators.

BECAUSE the author's economic prescriptions were gathered in 1984, Australian businessmen have had three years in which to put their capital where their mouths were. The economic statistics now show that, despite thorough deregulation of Australia's financial markets, Australian entrepreneurs prefer to drill for oil off the coast of Morocco, open supermarkets in the United States or take over British newspapers.

Women whose political affiliations Ross Terrill disagrees with are peculiar targets. One member of the Nuclear Disarmament Party is described as "tight-lipped." Another is said to be wearing a button that "stares down at me." He attacks the government for awarding compensation to a single mother in a sex discrimination case, suggesting that the single mother may be "a pain in the ass." A referral service for battered women is characterized as an example of the general "overlay of imperious liberationism" in Australian society. Terrill also revives the hoary stereotype of the original convict society of Sydney, "largely male and spiced with a few women who were mainly prostitutes." It is well attested that convict women were treated as prostitutes or, worse, sexual slaves, although few had actually been transported for prostitution. The author misses the distinction between voluntary and involuntary prostitution and appears to endorse the idea that coerced sex was the spice of founding fathers' lives.

Finally Ross Terrill presents little or no convincing evidence of the "sullenness" and "lack of civic spirit" of which he accuses Australians, as compared, that is, with the "incurable idealism" and "civic-mindness" of the United States. I wonder on which side of the fence he really wants to stand.

Claudia Wright is an Australian journalist who has reported from Washington for Australian, European, U.S. and British newspapers for the past decade.