This country faces the 1980s as the envy of many others for its vast resources of energy, food, raw materials and cash. But Australians are nervous about what they see as great social and economic problems.

And while the other two English-speaking economic powers of the Pacific, the United States and Canada, face crucially important national elections in 1980, Australia is gearing up for one which may well set the national tone and direction for the entire decade.

It is hard for outsiders to take Australia's current national frown seriously. For the second year in a row, its inflation has been less than 10 percent; it is running a trade surplus in excess of $3 billion annually and has record reserves of nearly $5 billion.

By all material standards, the 14 million Australians inhabit a country, the size of the continental Unuted States, that is a promised land of the 20th century.

And with extensive indigenous oil reserves, extensive deposits of natural gas, coal, bauxite, diamonds, copper, uranium and iron ore and an abundance of arable land to grow grain and cattle, it promises to become a sort of one-nation OPEC of the 21st century.

Instead of sitting back in the sun or lazing in the thousands of miles of surf, however, Australians are entering the 80s more worried about their national security than at any time since World War II and treating the 1980 election as if Australia was some South Seas Rhodesia depending for survival on its outcome.

In a poll conducted by The Age newspaper of Melbourne, two-thirds of Australians said they believed a major war was likely or very likely in the new decade. It corroborated other polls over the past year showing that Australians want their defenses strengthened. The current government is, in fact, embarked on a five-year plan that boosts defense spending by a real 3 percent a year.

The Australian nervousness is due in part to the existence for the first time since the 1930s depression of a relatively large pool of unemployed, in part to the traumatic events in the mid-1970s that put the current conservative government in power and in part to the personalities involved in the 1980 election.

There are about 400,000 Australians unemployed, just under 6 percent of the work force. a decade ago, governments did everything they could to keep the jobless rate down to about 1 percent but the current levels have existed for more than three years and there is no prospect for a reduction over the next 12 months.

While those who have jobs have been notably reluctant to bother too much about those who do not, the modernization of much of Australian industry -- encouraged by the conservative government with generous tax incentives -- is creating concern among workers and union leaders. There is even growing unemployment among college graduates, causing middle-class parents to pay attention to the unemployment rate for the first time.

While Malcolm Fraser remains prime minister -- he is only 49 -- Australians remember how he came to power on Nov. 11, 1975. On that day the then-governor general, Sir John Kerr, sacked the Labor -- and somewhat socialist -- government of Gough Whitlam and installed Fraser at the head of a coalition of conservative urban (the so-called Liberal) and rural parties. Fraser's power was confirmed with a landslide victory at the national election a month later and reconfirmed by a second landslide win over Whitlam in 1977. In those elections at any rate, Australians decided the self-interest they saw represented by Fraser's conservative policies and tough, somewhat secretive style of running the country was more important than the arbitrary way in which he was first put into office by the queen's representative.

Whitlam's successor as the Labor Party leader and Fraser's official rival is William George Hayden, 47, a former policeman from outback Queensland who taught himself law and economics as a parliamentary backbencher and was an effective treasury minister in the final year of the Whitlam government.

Philosophically, Hayden is similar to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and thus a right-winger in Australian Labor terms. His campaign stategy is to attack Fraser's authoritarian style plus promising a series of social innovations, including reform of Australia's chaotic health care system, introduction of a limited capital gains tax and government-financed schemes to put some of the jobless to work.

The prospects for both Fraser and Hayden, especially the latter, have been complicated by the direct intervention for the first time in a national election of Australia's most popular political figure, Bob Hawke, president of the Trade Union Council.

Hawke has led the trade union movement for 10 turbulent years, during which unions grew more powerful and the average worker increased his share of the income pie. The average wage is now nearly $270 a week. Hawke, now 50, became a national figure by combining his intellect -- he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford -- with a brilliant television style and a lovable, somewhat rowdy image based on his prodigiously great thirst for Australia's potent beer. For years, every opinion poll has shown him to be the man most Australians wanted to be prime minister.

But 1980 will be the first time in 17 years that he has tried to enter the federal Parliament. On his first try, as a relative unknown, Hawke lost.

Running as a labor candidate, he is now certain to win the Melbourne working-class seat of Wills. He has minced no words about his ambition to become prime minister and that means Hayden will either have to stand down from the party leadership -- most unlikely unless he is hopefully thrashed at the election -- or be beaten.

It will not be an easy task for Hawke, but his candidacy has added a new excitment to the campaign and a new drama to Australia's prospects for the 80s.

Hawke has already begun to campaign like a populist American presidential candidate, going over the heads of the party regulars and manipulators to appeal to the mass of voters. Because of his campaign style and great drive, there is not doubt that if Hawke does become prime minister he will be more powerful than his precedessors.

At the moment, most observers expect Fraser to win easily in the election, which is expected late in the year. But Hawke's entry into the fray and the strangely sultry mood of the country have added uncertainty to the predictions.