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Thumbs up for indigenous declaration

Canberra has officially endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, reversing a Howard Government vote on it.

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The previous government blocked the declaration in 2007, on the grounds it would elevate customary law above Australian law.

But on Friday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said endorsing the declaration was an important symbolic step for building trust and improving relations in Australia.

“Today, Australia changes its position,” Ms Macklin said.

“We do this in the spirit of rethinking the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and building trust.”

Key election promise

Signing the UN declaration was one of Labor\’s election promises in the run-up to the November 2007 vote.

The declaration sets out the rights of the world\’s estimated 370 million indigenous people.

Unlike a ratified treaty, it is non-binding, but is designed to be used as a set of guiding principles.

Legal expert Megan Davis said suggestions the charter would favour Aboriginal rules above domestic law were misguided.

“The declaration is non-binding and has no legal effect in Australia; there\’s no way it could elevate Aboriginal customary law above domestic Australian law,” she said.

Non-binding agreement

Ms Davis, director of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of New South Wales, said it would be used by Aboriginal people in negotiations with local and state governments, as well as in the courts.

“Politically and legally it will be used a lot.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Tom Calma said Labor\’s endorsement of the declaration must be backed by a renewed commitment to improve Aboriginal health.

“Formal support for the UN declaration specifically protects the right of indigenous peoples to participate in decision making in matters that affect their rights,” Mr Calma said.

“The next step is to develop a comprehensive, long-term and properly resourced national action plan to achieve indigenous health equality and to do it in genuine partnership with indigenous peoples.”

College tries porn to distract drinkers

An attempt to distract university students in Maryland from late-night drinking with a feature-length porn movie has been blocked after state senators threatened to cut funds for the college.

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The two-and-a-half-hour “Pirates II: Stagnetti\’s Revenge” – the most expensive pornographic film ever made, at a cost of $US10 million ($A14 million) – would have been shown at a University of Maryland student union theatre on Saturday.

Organisers at the College Park campus, 16km north of Washington, had championed educational aspects of the screening, with health group Planned Parenthood planning to hold a presentation on safe sex practices beforehand.

The event was also previously seen by university officials as an “alternative to late-night drinking and other dangerous activities,” the Baltimore Sun reported before the cancellation.

Republican state senator Andy Harris, however, proposed an amendment to the state budget to deny millions of dollars in funding for any educational institutions that screen a porn movie.

Harris said he had been “shocked and dismayed” to hear the college was going to screen the movie, and denounced what he described as the “dangers of pornography.”

He said he was “extremely concerned that the policy of our public colleges and universities would allow \’hard core\’ pornography” to be shown.

“I am pleased to know that the university did the right thing and cancelled this movie. However, I remain concerned that they do not have a policy prohibiting this,” the senator said in a statement after the university reversed its decision.

Harris added he was “working to seek assurances that this will not happen again.”

The Sun said that during a lengthy debate Thursday morning at the state legislature in Annapolis, Maryland, senate president Thomas Miller indicated he would back Harris\’ threat to cut millions of dollars in funding.

Linda Clement, the university\’s vice president of student affairs, denied the cancellation was linked to threats made by state lawmakers.

“No, we cancelled the (showing) because the educational context of the movie has been lost in the titillation that\’s been associated with the movie itself,” according to Clement\’s spokesman Millree Williams.

“That\’s hard to believe,” responded Adam Kissel, director of the Individual Rights Defence Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The university\’s claim, he said, was extremely unlikely because beforehand “university administrators had known about it, had expected it to go on and they had no problem with it.”

Kissel said his education rights group was “very concerned” about the likely constitutional violation, namely the First Amendment that protects free speech.

“Strictly based on the plot and the trailer, the movie has plenty of action beyond the sexual action – it has a plot, it has intrigue, just like any movie.

“So it\’s almost 100 per cent certain that the university is violating the free speech rights of the students,” said Kissel, noting that a First Amendment case was strengthened because of the educational component of Planned Parenthood\’s presentation.

Digital Playground, the adult film company behind “Pirates II,” said on its website it had already shown the film to thousands of students on several college campuses this year, including the University of California, Los Angeles; Northwestern University in Chicago; and Southern Connecticut State University.

On-campus showings of X-rated movies such as “Behind the Green Door” and “Deep Throat” stirred sensation and controversy in the 1970s and 1980s, but porn has become commonplace on campuses over the past decade with virtually unlimited access to X-rated material via the internet.

Go on holidays … for the economy

An advertising campaign launched by Tourism Australia aims to encourage workers to tap into an estimated $33 billion of accumulated holiday leave.

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The scheme is supported by employer groups and aims to boost workplace productivity in stressful economic times and stimulate the domestic tourism industry, says Tourism Australia managing director Geoff Buckley.

“If we can unlock some of this leave and get people to use it to holiday in Australia, it would be of great benefit to our $65 billion domestic tourism industry,” Mr Buckley said.

One in four full-time employees has accrued 25 days or more of annual leave, he said.

“Stockpiling leave and not taking a break contributes to many workplace concerns such as lack of productivity, staff retention, employee commitment and morale,” Mr Buckley said.

Workers who dodge taking leave and stockpile holidays cost the economy $14.81 billion a year, research by Medibank Private found.

The 2008 study found that people who turned up to work stressed, or took sick leave because of stress, cost employers $10.11 billion annually.

It found that 3.2 days for each worker were lost every year because of workplace stress.

Workplace stress reduced business productivity and led to lower rates of economic growth, as well as reduced consumption, investment, trade and production.

Workplace stress can also affect employee health and has been linked to mental and physical health conditions including nervousness, tension, anxiety, depression and heart conditions.

Director of psychology services at Health Services Australia Dr Peter Cotton said the research was a good indicator of the changing nature of the workplace.

“Certainly, evidence is accumulating that when people are stressed … they aren\’t engaged, aren\’t motivated, and hence their productivity is much lower.

“People who perform well tend to have a balance in their work and family life,” Dr Cotton said.

“They\’ll often work for periods of extended hours on various projects, but they\’ll balance that out by taking a solid long weekend.”

“Where you don\’t have that balance, that can still impact in terms of reductions in productivity.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) said the leave initiative would help reduce stockpiled annual leave and stimulate Australian tourism.

ACCI chief executive Peter Anderson said the scheme benefited employers by developing a healthier, more motivated and productive workforce and reduced current and future financial liabilities.

“Tourism is a major driver of the Australian economy, employs 480,000 people Australia-wide and is the life blood of many Australian communities,” Mr Anderson said.

“(Accumulated leave) is bad news for the health of both business and employees.

“It\’s a simple lose/lose situation that can no longer be ignored.”

Tax havens fume over G20 list

Luxembourg, Switzerland and Liechtenstein on Friday blasted a G20 offensive against tax havens, regretting their inclusion on an international “grey” list of offshore financial centres.

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“I think that the treatment given to some countries is a bit incomprehensible,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker told journalists as he arrived to chair a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Prague.

After G20 leaders agreed to crack down on tax havens on Thursday in London, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published a list of countries that still needed to implement internationally agreed tax standards.

While Luxembourg, Switzerland and Liechtenstein figured on that list, they escaped being put on a list of countries that had not even agreed to international tax standards.

In reaction to the list, the Swiss finance minister issued a statement saying that “President Hans-Rudolf Merz regrets this procedure.”

“The list does not specify the criteria on the basis of which it was drawn up. Switzerland is not a tax haven,” it added, remarking that it was “particularly strange” that Bern was not consulted on drawing up the list even though it is an OECD member.

Liechtenstein said that it hoped to be struck from the list.

Luxembourg along with Austria and Belgium are the only three EU members that have bank secrecy laws on their books, which they have agreed to ease after coming under fierce pressure from other European countries ahead of the G20 summit.

Juncker renewed criticism of the way the lists were drawn up, remarking that several US states with tax-friendly laws were not put on either list while Luxembourg was.

He had said on Tuesday that if Luxembourg were put on any international list of offshore financial centres then Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming should also be named and shamed as tax havens.

As part of efforts to infuse the global financial system with more transparency, G20 nations agreed at the London summit to bring an end to tax havens that fail to provide information when requested.

Austrian Finance Minister Josef Proell downplayed Austria\’s inclusion on the “grey” list and said it did not affect the country\’s banking secrecy laws.

“The talks are over for us because the proof is there on the grey list that we have taken steps in the right direction,” he told journalists as he arrived for the meeting with eurozone counterparts.

“From Austria\’s point of view, national banking law will not disturb banking secrecy,” he said, adding that changes would entail improving the exchange of tax information with other countries when there is suspicion of wrong-doing.

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, who has led international efforts to crack down on tax havens, welcomed the new pressure on offshore financial centres.

“We cannot allow German taxpayers to be invited to put capital in these tax havens with the clear intention to hoodwink us, you and me,” he said.

Obama warns NATO allies about terror

As anti-summit demonstrators clashed with riot police protecting the fortified NATO summit venues in the French city of Strasbourg and Germany\’s nearby Baden-Baden, Obama beat the drum for his new Afghan strategy.

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“It is probably more likely that Al-Qaeda would be able to launch a serious terrorist attack in Europe than in the United States, because of proximity,” said Obama after arriving from London for the NATO summit. “We would like to see Europe have much more robust defence capabilities. That is not something we discourage, we are not looking to be the patron of Europe, we are looking to be partners with Europe,” he said. Europe “should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone,” he added later. Britain, Germany and Spain will offer reinforcements to boost security during August\’s presidential election in Afghanistan, and France will send some police, but it was not clear that long-term help would be available. Afghan strategy Obama was therefore to use the NATO summit, the second leg of his maiden trip to Europe as president after a G20 economic summit in London on Thursday, to drum up support for his new Afghan strategy. There are 70,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, mostly under NATO command, battling Taliban insurgents, whose tenacious rebellion is spreading from the rugged and lawless tribal regions around the border with Pakistan. Obama has decided to send 21,000 extra US troops and is considering deploying 10,000 more, while asking Europe to contribute by providing more soldiers as well as civilian support staff to train the police. “NATO is the most successful alliance in modern history. The basic premise of NATO was that Europe\’s security was the United States\’ security, and vice-versa,” Obama said, standing alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama\’s predecessor George W. Bush struggled to convince reluctant European allies to increase their commitment, but the new US national security adviser General James Jones has predicted that NATO is now ready to up the ante. The only new soldiers announced since the start of the talks are from Britain, which is said to be readying several hundred troops to join the 8,000 it already has in Afghanistan over the election period. “The prime minister is prepared to consider an increase in troop numbers on a temporary basis to provide additional security for the upcoming president elections in Afghanistan,” a Downing Street official told AFP. 60th anniversary summit NATO\’s 60th anniversary summit, starting Friday evening with a dinner for all 28 heads of state and government, was to be held in the French city of Strasbourg and on the German side of the River Rhine in Kehl and Baden-Baden. Landing in Strasbourg in the afternoon, Obama held his first bilateral talks with Sarkozy before hopping over the border in a helicopter to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany ahead of the summit proper. Merkel agreed at her news conference with Obama that Afghanistan could not be allowed to become a “failed state” and to emerge once again as a “base for Al-Qeada.” As if to underline the urgency of the Afghan review, a soldier in the 42-nation NATO-led force in Afghanistan was killed Friday and another wounded in a “hostile incident”, the military said in Kabul. There was meanwhile trouble in France where hundreds of protesters clashed with the 10,000-strong force manning the security cordon around the Strasbourg venue for the second day running. The leaders on Friday also discussed who will replace NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer when he steps down in July, with frontrunner Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen under fire from Turkey.

Fannie, Freddie regulator stands behind bonuses

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Ongoing bonuses paid to employees at Fannie Mae <fnm.

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n> and Freddie Mac are offensive since taxpayers are helping keep the mortgage-finance companies afloat, a leading Senate Republican said on Friday.

“It\’s an insult that the bonuses were made with an infusion of cash from taxpayers,” Charles Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee said in a statement. “The elite in Washington and New York need to realize that bonuses for poor performance and at taxpayer expense do a lot of damage to public confidence.”

The Iowa lawmaker has been a strong critic of executive bonuses paid out by finance companies that have lately had to rely on government aid.

During a public uproar last month about bonuses paid out at failed insurance giant American International Group Inc. , Grassley said executives should “follow the Japanese example” and “resign or go commit suicide.”

AIG was under fire for paying out $165 million of bonuses despite a series of taxpayer bailouts for the company totaling $180 billion. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also had to rely on a huge helping of government aid since it was nationalized in September.

Still, while several AIG executives received multi-million-dollar bonuses the extra pay at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is being spread much more evenly across the companies.

James Lockhart, the companies\’ regulator, wrote that the pay plan includes “many hard-working lower level employees which are important to the mission of providing stability, liquidity and affordability to the housing market.”

Lockhart, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, wrote Grassley last week that bonuses were a key component of pay for over 7,500 employees at the two companies.

When other lawmakers have questioned the payments, Lockhart has defended them as an important defense against employee attrition.

Herb Allison, the government-appointed overseer for Fannie Mae, has also vowed to try and preserve the employees\’ compensation.

“I understand your deep feeling that repudiation of the terms of the retention plan… would be a breach of faith,” Allison wrote in a memo to staff last month.

(Reporting by Patrick Rucker)

Obama passes NATO test, but questions remain

The new US president however also enhanced his own aura, drawing praise from his peers as a fresh and decisive voice, after unpicking a row threatening the unity of a major summit for the second time in three days.

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This time he gave Turkey cover to drop its opposition to the next NATO boss, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, two days after intervening between China and France to forge a compromise on tax havens at the G20 London summit. White House aides brandished a new NATO commitment of 5,000 troops and stiffened financial pledges as proof the alliance listened to Obama\’s challenge to commit anew to the six-year war. But with the conflict unpopular in Europe, the new forces, most to secure Afghan elections later this year and to train the Afghan National Army, are dwarfed by the 21,000-strong US troop hikes that Obama recently announced. “I am pleased that our NATO allies pledged their strong and unanimous support for our new strategy,” Obama said after the summit. “It was only just a week ago that we announced this new approach, but already … we have started to match real resources to achieve our goals.” Keeping expectations low Obama traveled to the summit, part of a week-long swing through Europe and Turkey, knowing there would be no large European combat force forthcoming, so had kept expectations low. But facing accusations he was leading America into a quagmire or his own personal “Vietnam”, he needed to convince allies Afghanistan was their war too. “I think the president can make a pretty strong case that he has made a good start,” said Karen Donfried, of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who watched from Strasbourg as the summit unfolded. Senior US officials said privately they saw allied commitments at the NATO summit as merely a “downpayment” on a more robust NATO civilian and military effort in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. US observers have been particularly stressing Europe\’s capacity to help with the civilian and development side of the mission. They also gently argued that the fact Obama went out of his way to consult US allies on the strategy placed increased responsibility on US allies. “We\’ve put together a very consultative process with our allies to make sure that their views are taken into consideration as we put together the strategy,” a senior US official said on condition of anonymity. “As a result, we also then will expect that, their views having been heard, that they\’re in a position to match resources against the strategy.” In his debut on the world stage, Obama did not demand an immediate response from US allies for more boots on the ground or money for the war chest, but may not always be so patient. “Barack Obama was not expecting an answer this week. But he will be looking for an answer over the coming months,” said Donfried. Convincing allies to commit more Political reality suggests the US commander-in-chief may have limited time to convince US allies to put more muscle into the fight. Even Obama, who sometimes seems immune to political gravity, has a limited half life — as does his leverage on the continent\’s leaders. Europe\’s politicians, including Britain\’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Germany\’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France\’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, are all constrained by domestic political clocks. Even if they want a more robust Afghan troop presence, they may find it tough to pull off — a fact Obama implicitly recognized when noting a leader\’s toughest moments come when sending troops into battle. US and Turkish officials said the president was instrumental in convincing Turkey to drop its objections to Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen. “I think that our President really was instrumental in bringing about this common ground and finding this common ground,” said Obama\’s national security advisor James Jones on Air Force One. “I think it\’s a very good day for the Alliance,” said Jones, whose account of the event was backed up by the Turks. Turkey had objected to Rasmussen\’s defence of a Danish newspaper\’s right in 2005 to printing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. It also complained Rasmussen had failed to act on Turkish requests to a Denmark-based channel accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers\’ Party.

Nkorea says it will launch satellite soon

North Korea says it has finished its preparations for a satellite launch which will go ahead “soon” – keeping the world guessing on the timing of what critics see as a disguised missile test.

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In a sign of frayed nerves, Japan\’s government at one point on Saturday said the rocket launch was thought to have gone ahead, only later to retract its statement as incorrect. The nuclear-armed communist North says it is planning a peaceful satellite launch, and has defied demands from the United States and its regional allies to cancel the exercise. Its state Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said preparations for launching the communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 “have been completed” at a site in the northeast. “The satellite will be launched soon,” it said, citing information from the Korean Committee of Space Technology. KCNA said the satellite would be carried by an Unha-2 (Galaxy-2) rocket — known in the West as the Taepodong-2 which could theoretically reach Alaska or Hawaii at maximum range. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have vowed to refer a launch to the UN Security Council as a breach of a resolution passed after the North\’s 2006 missile and nuclear tests. The North says that even a Council debate about its launch would lead to a breakdown of long-running six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. It has announcd the launch for April 4-8, and between the hours of 11am and 4pm Korean time. Monitoring cameras set up Seoul\’s Yonhap news agency said cameras had been set up at three different places around the launch site at Musudan-ri. “Given that the fuelling work has been completed and then the monitoring cameras have been set up, it is very likely for the launch to be in several hours,” it quoted a Seoul government source as saying. But YTN television, quoting Seoul military sources, said the North has not yet switched on radar systems at Musudan-ri. It said such radar signals had been detected several hours before previous launches. Seoul security officials declined comment. The North says the first stage of the rocket will fall in the Sea of Japan, and the second stage will plunge into the Pacific. ‘Launch provocative’: Obama US President Barack Obama urged Kim Jong-Il\’s regime to desist. “We have made very clear to the North Koreans that their missile launch is provocative,” he said on Friday in Strasbourg. “Should North Korea decide to take this action, we will work with all interested parties in the international community to take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can\’t threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity.” Obama\’s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, gave an apparently softer message, saying that his goal is to resume stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks no matter what happens. Analysts say a successful launch would give the regime a major propaganda boost amid lingering uncertainty following widespread reports that leader Kim suffered a stroke last August. The launch aims to persuade the new US administration to open direct talks with Pyongyang, and will strengthen the regime\’s hand in future negotiations over its nuclear program, analysts say. First test in 2006 The North tested a Taepodong-2 for the first time in July 2006 but it failed after 40 seconds. In Seoul, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak called an emergency meeting of security-related ministers Saturday, a presidential spokesman told AFP. China, the North\’s sole major ally, is thought likely to block any bid for new UN sanctions. The Security Council could toughen the observance of existing sanctions — banning trade in missile components, other weapons and luxury goods — or issue a chairman\’s statement criticising Pyongyang. If North Korea goes ahead, Bosworth told a Washington news conference, the United States would “consult vigorously” on what action to take. “We believe that a defiance of a UN Security Council resolution is an action that requires that there be some consequences,” Bosworth said. But he added that the aim is to get back to the denuclearisation process as soon as possible after the “dust settles.”

Govt\’s mortgage plan old news: Hockey

Australia\’s largest mortgage lender said more than two weeks ago that it would provide six to 12-month repayment moratoriums for customers who had recently lost their jobs as a result of the global financial crisis.

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The country\’s other major banks – ANZ, Westpac and National Australia Bank – said they offered mortgage repayment deferrals on a case-by-case basis. However, under a plan announced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Sunday, all four big banks will formally offer repayment reprieves to the recently unemployed for up to one year. Opposition finance spokesman Joe Hockey said the deal was old news. “It was announced by the banks two weeks ago,” Mr Hockey told Network Ten. “Kevin Rudd comes back to Australia, puts his arms around the major banks and claims it as his own.” While he welcomed the initiative, Mr Hockey said it provided little comfort for the many people who have loans with smaller providers. “There are literally hundreds of thousands of Australians that do not have mortgages with the major financial institutions and therefore they may well not be covered,” he said. Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner conceded smaller lenders, including Aussie, were not part of the deal announced on Sunday but hoped they followed suit. “There are obviously a proportion of people who won\’t have the same possibilities offered to them by other lenders but I suspect you will find that there may be individual arrangements that may apply in some of those circumstances,” he told the Nine Network. “The bulk of mortgages across Australia are held by the four major banks. I would hope that some other lenders will follow suit but of course it will depend on the individual circumstances of those lenders.”

Rudd plans mortgage help for jobless

The federal government has admitted not every retrenched worker with a mortgage will benefit from a loan repayment reprieve it has negotiated with Australia\’s four major banks.

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The banks have agreed to offer a 12 month period of relief from mortgage payments to workers who have lost their jobs.

They will also consider extending mortgage contract periods and reducing repayments, and providing interest-only repayment options on other loans.

But smaller banks, credit unions, building societies and non-bank lenders – who make up 20 per cent of the mortgage market – are not part of the deal.

Treasurer Wayne Swan, who negotiated the reprieve “principles”, says the arrangements won\’t work for everyone, but will be available for those in greatest need.

“It means that workers who have gone through the trauma of losing their jobs will have up to 12 months grace from the stress of having to find the money to service their home loans,” he said.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says it will be up to the banks to decide which of its borrowers gain relief.

“Banks will make assessments based on the borrower\’s ability to meet new contractual obligations in the long term,” he told a jobs forum in Melbourne.

The government had asked the banks to provide “maximum flexibility” for borrowers suffering temporary hardship through “enforced unemployment”.

Mr Rudd acknowledged the Commonwealth Bank already had announced reprieve measures for its borrowers.

Mr Swan said discussions were underway with credit unions and mutual building societies about their “appropriate participation” in the agreement, saying some already had procedures in place for members facing financial hardship.

The opposition says the agreement provides little comfort for retrenched workers who have mortgages with smaller lenders.

“There are literally hundreds of thousands of Australians that do not have mortgages with the major financial institutions and therefore they may well not be covered,” finance spokesman Joe Hockey said.

Opposition housing spokesman Scott Morrison warned that capitalising interest could increase the risk of negative equity for some home owners.

“People who take on these options will end up with a greater debt and higher repayments at the end of the day,” he said.

Westpac CEO Gail Kelly says banks do not want customers in financial hardship to feel as though they have nowhere to go.

“The last thing we want to do with regard to mortgages is actually take over someone\’s home,” she said.

Westpac and St George have also extended their Assist program, which helps customers by extending loan terms or freezing repayments, to include small business.

In addition, the Westpac Group will provide $1 million in funding to organisations that provide financial counselling, including the Salvation Army and the Smith Family.

The ANZ says its customers are managing repayments well, but acknowledged there was “continued weakness” in the economy.

The bank had always supported borrowers facing hardship, CEO Brian Hartzer said.

“But we have decided to expand these in light of continuing difficult economic circumstances,” he said.

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