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Looking Up Down Under: an Aussie Bounce

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Workers like Tony Loughry find Australia's new vitality tough going.

Because while government efforts to restructure and reenergize a slow-moving economy have brought impressive gains, they've also brought higher unemployment.

Mr. Loughry, of Wellington Point, Queensland, is among the "restructured." He says he has answered at least 50 ads but landed fewer than five interviews.

"There are so many unemployed that the personnel agencies say they have received 100 odd applicants and are not able to interview you," says Loughry, an experienced computer operator and clerk.

He's far from alone. Australia's unemployment rate ranks among the highest for English-speaking countries, 8.8 percent. In Queensland it approaches 10 percent. And in Tasmania, an island off the southeastern coast of Australia, it is 11 percent.

High unemployment is one of the few blemishes in the economy Down Under. Rising mineral prices have pulled mining exports out of a hole. And tourism is bustling as the nation prepares to host the Olympic Games in the year 2000. Surveys show improved business confidence, and inflation sits at a four-year low.

These bright spots are beginning to give the once slow-moving economy a kangaroo-like bounce. "We think the economy will build up momentum with 1998 as the strong year," says Nigel Stapledon, chief economist at Westpac Banking in Sydney. By next year, Mr. Stapledon predicts, Australian gross domestic product (GDP) should grow by 4.75 percent.

And that should take the pressure off unemployment. Prime Minister John Howard recently said the economy would have to grow by 4 to 4.5 percent a year to reduce unemployment. The current growth rate is about 3.5 percent.

In the meantime, 135,700 manufacturing jobs have disappeared so far this decade - 1,300 of them last year.

The Australian economy is caged, in part, by its trading partners.


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