Australia is fast tightening its belt as new forecasts from the International Monetary Fund add to lengthening dole queues, fears for thousands more jobs and gloomy predictions from local economists.

Although Australia is in better health than most advanced economies, the winds from the gathering global storm are being felt even in a country whose Treasurer, Wayne Swan, has just been named the world's best finance minister.

The picture hardening across the bulk of the nation not insulated by the mining boom is one of fear for the survival of companies, jobs and financial security, and an increasingly stressed workforce where most work more hours than they are paid for.

Politically, the crunch will add heavily to the woes of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, already crushed by record lows in her minority Government's popularity and now driving a carbon tax through Parliament.


The tax is unpopular with voters and flayed mercilessly by Opposition leader Tony Abbott as another weighty impost that will destroy jobs and raise living costs without benefiting the environment.

This week he was backed by American aluminium producer Alcoa, which told a parliamentary committee that the tax, added to the high Australian dollar and other pressures, could force two Victorian smelters to close, costing 1200 jobs.

Gillard has already been attacked by manufacturing unions after steel giant BlueScope's decision to close one blast furnace and end exports, a move it blamed on the strength of the resources-fuelled dollar.

The decision cost 1400 workers and contractors their jobs and raised new alarm about the "patchwork economy" focusing wealth on mining at the expense of the rest of the nation.

Calls for action have been growing across the manufacturing, retail, tourism and other sectors excluded from the prosperity of miners.

Gillard has rejected "populist" calls to force miners and state agencies to buy Australian products, heightened yesterday by news that the Climate Change Department's new Canberra headquarters is being built with cheap Chinese aluminium from plants claimed to produce 50 per cent more emissions than Australian rivals.

But she has been forced into special tax and jobs forums next month aiming to plan survival tactics and ease the heat on manufacturers and the unions.

On Tuesday she met business, industry and union leaders to set priorities for the meetings, likely to include the impact of the mining boom, high exchange rates and cheap imports. She will also be leaned on to find ways to ease what unions say is a workforce under increased pressure. A survey of 42,000 workers by the Council of Trade Unions said many feared for their jobs: one in six already worked part time because they could not find permanent employment. Almost half of those without work had been jobless for at least two years.


These trends were noted at the Reserve Bank's September meeting, with its minutes observing that unemployment had risen to 5.3 per cent, consumer confidence had fallen, and that as fears of losing their jobs rose, Australians' perceptions of their personal finances were "very weak". The minutes also said a rising number of firms were "reassessing" hiring plans.

Westpac and ANZ banks predict economic growth this year of 1.2 to 1.3 per cent, well below May Budget expectations and worse than the new IMF outlook. Although reasonably optimistic about the nation's chances of skirting a recession - bolstered by the second-lowest debt of 29 advanced economies - the IMF lowered predictions for economic growth this year from 3 per cent to 1.8 per cent.

Swan, who flies to Washington this week to collect his award from finance publication Euromoney and attend IMF and World Bank meetings, said the fund's forecast confirmed Australia's "rock-solid" position. "We're not immune from what happens in Europe or the United States, but neither should we underestimate the fundamental strength of our economy and ... of the regional economy here in the Asia Pacific," he told ABC radio.SEE ALSO

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