Gold in Australia is booming, aided by South African unrest

Amid growing pressure on gold-rich South Africa, Australian gold production is booming. The Australian stock market's gold index is at record levels, new mines are poised to open, and analysts predict that Australian production will increase each year for the next decade.

Australia is the noncommunist world's fifth-ranking gold producer. It supplies 3.4 percent of the world's gold exports -- compared with South Africa's 59.5 percent. Australian production has grown by 25 to 30 percent a year since 1981 and is expected to reach 60 tons this year, with the same level of annual increase forecast until 1995, when production is predicted to plateau.

Expansion of Australian gold mining was under way before this year, but South African unrest has unquestionably accelerated it. With Canada's popular Maple Leaf gold coin experiencing strong sales, the Australian government will be hurrying its first gold coins onto the world market in about six months. These will be produced at the Perth mint.

The coins, in four denominations -- one ounce, half-ounce, quarter-ounce, and tenth-ounce -- will feature Australian flora and fauna on one side and the head of Queen Elizabeth II (Australia belongs to the Commonwealth) on the other. The plan is to use 10 tons of Australian gold a year in the coins -- a target projected to be reached within two years.

``The South African thing,'' says Geoff Breen, an analyst at the Ord Minnett Ltd. brokerage firm of Sydney, ``is buoying up our market, but the US gold price has sustained the action.''

Among the best-performing mining stocks in Australia, says Ord Minnett, are Kidston, Gold Mines of Kalgoorlie, Central Norseman Gold, Sons of Gwalia, and Westernmining Corporation.

Dealers, producers, and brokers do acknowledge one worry: Gold prices could be forced down if the beleaguered South African government opts to sell substantial gold holdings in the face of foreign banks calling in their loans.

Other than that prospect, the atmosphere in Australia is bullish, especially in towns such as Kalgoorlie, in outback western Australia.

Kalgoorlie -- a rough-and-ready town where some of the locals try hard to live up to a hard-bitten frontier image -- has long had the reputation as the gold capital of Australia. Its mining supply and service industries are booming.

At present, just under 30 mines in Australia produce about 80 percent of the country's gold. The rest comes from small mines, employing as many as 20 or as few as one person working part-time.

Unlike South Africa, much of Australia's gold is retrieved from open-cut mines -- like quarries -- rather than underground mines. Open-cut mines are easily worked by small teams.

For big corporations and one-man bands, there is a powerful added attraction in mining for gold in Australia: That country does not tax gold-mining profits.

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