McClay reprimanded over Chinese trade issues

The Trade Minister Todd McClay has been publicly reprimanded by John Key for not being open and honest to Key or to the public after a story broke about alleged Chinese threats over trade.

Stuff: McClay rebuked by PM after failing to reveal wider fears of China retribution

After days downplaying Stuff reports, McClay on Monday revealed officials have been “for months” examining reports that China could retaliate if an investigation into steel dumping in New Zealand went ahead.

He also apologised to Key for not seeking more detail on the issue, but he stopped short of offering his resignation.

Key said McClay’s answers to media at a joint press conference in Indonesia, after Stuff broke the story, left the impression “that the only correspondence, the only discussion, had been between Zespri and a non-Government organisation and that’s not true”.

It’s not uncommon for Ministers to avoid telling the public everything about an issue, sometimes to try and protect themselves, sometimes to protect others from revelations that could be embarrassing.

But to not be up front with the Prime Minister can create serious problems for the Government, as it did in this case due to Key giving responses to media that turned out to be inaccurate.

There had been discussions and correspondence with others.

“He should have made both the media and me aware of that.”

“I think he took a very literal interpretation of the question that was asked of him. While that …may have been technically correct the point I was making to him is that’s giving a very specific and, I think, ‘dancing on the head of a pin’-type of answer to what was really a broader question. “

Key says that McClay has apologised to him but has not offered his resignation. McClay should be on notice not to stuff up like this again.

Labour leader Andrew Little called for Key to sack McClay. 

“A Minister who does not appreciate the seriousness of possible retaliatory action by our biggest trading partner against some of our biggest export industries simply should not be in the job.”

I have no idea whether it warrants the sacking of McClay, but Opposition calls for sackings tend to be not infrequent and often overplayed. In any case McClay may have appreciated the seriousness of the issue with China, but not the importance of properly informing the PM.

McClay was hamstrung in what he could say about a possible complaint about steel dumping because under WTO rules the Government could not confirm that until a formal investigation was launched.

How much to tell the PM is an ongoing judgement call by ministers, in this case poorly judged by McClay, but if Ministers resigned or were sacked over every stuff up there would be a drastic shortage of experience in Cabinet.

Key still played down the seriousness of the trade threats.

Key continued to describe the fears of China retaliating as “unsubstantiated rumours”.

“I think it still does fit in that category.”

There had been “engagement” like the one between an NGO and Zespri.

“What has happened is where there have been questions raised about whether, if there was an action taken, there would be retaliatory action the minister and the ministry have sought assurances that wouldn’t take place,” Key said.

“And to the best of our knowledge they have received those assurances.”

There have been claims ranging from serious trade threats from China to the story being an over-egged political hit job in New Zealand.

If the latter then jeopardising trade relations with China for political purposes deserves some attention, but don’t expect openness with the public or resignations for stuff ups in that respect.

US warship visit

A very unsurprising announcement on the visit to New Zealand of US Vice President Joe Biden – the US has formally accepted an invitation to send a naval vessel here later this year.

Stuff: Biden confirms US ship visit

It won’t be a nuclear powered or armed ship. It can’t be, as New Zealand law does not allow it.

New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987

Prohibition on stationing of nuclear explosive devices

No person shall emplant, emplace, transport on land or inland waters or internal waters, stockpile, store, install, or deploy any nuclear explosive device in the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone

9 Entry into internal waters of New Zealand

(1) When the Prime Minister is considering whether to grant approval to the entry of foreign warships into the internal waters of New Zealand, the Prime Minister shall have regard to all relevant information and advice that may be available to the Prime Minister including information and advice concerning the strategic and security interests of New Zealand.

(2) The Prime Minister may only grant approval for the entry into the internal waters of New Zealand by foreign warships if the Prime Minister is satisfied that the warships will not be carrying any nuclear explosive device upon their entry into the internal waters of New Zealand.

11 Visits by nuclear powered ships

Entry into the internal waters of New Zealand by any ship whose propulsion is wholly or partly dependent on nuclear power is prohibited.

So a US ship visit should be uncontroversial.

Except that it brings to an and a thirty year hissy fit by the US who reacted petulantly when  another sovereign nation passed laws that had massive public support.

Key on Chinese trade allegations

John Key has played down allegations that China is threatening retaliation against New Zealand over an investigation into the quality of steel imported from China – see China allegedly threatens NZ on trade.

Stuff: John Key downplays retaliation suggestions over potential China steel import sanctions

Prime Minister John Key has downplayed fears of a trade war from China if sanctions are slapped on its steel, saying he has received “no indication” the world superpower is upset with New Zealand.

Highly-placed sources have confirmed China is applying pressure in an attempt to sway regulators at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) away from imposing anti-dumping or countervailing duties – which are imposed when goods are subsidised – on cheap imported Chinese steel.

Speaking shortly after his arrival in Indonesia for a three-day trade trip, Key sought to pour cold water on the idea of any Chinese retaliation.

While he could not confirm whether MBIE had received a complaint about steel dumping, due to the confidentiality of the complaints regime, the Government had received “no indications” of Chinese concerns about possible anti-dumping duties, or potential retribution.

“Even if there was a complaint, and even if it was investigated, whether a country like China would take retaliatory action against New Zealand, I don’t believe that’s the case that they would.”

“There’ll be lots and lots of ways of them looking to resolve issues if there were any, but it wouldn’t be through the sort of things that we’ve seen reported.”

Key said there was no “substantiated source” confirming that China would take action against New Zealand exports, only speculation.

“People can have their own version or view … of what they think might happen, but our exports are flowing across the border into China.

“I regularly see the Chinese leadership, the Chinese ambassador has my phone number if he wants to pick it up and make a phone call – none of those things have happened.”

However it appears that the allegations have been taken seriously

Kiwi trade officials have been asked to “seek assurances” from the Chinese embassy about the country’s stance on competition issues, as local exporters worry about a backlash.

McClay had asked officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to speak to the Chinese embassy on Monday morning and “seek assurances” about the country’s position on competition issues.

McClay said he had no concerns about imported Chinese steel coming into New Zealand.

“We’re a trading nation, we sell a lot of things to China and other parts of the world, and we import a lot of things from them as well, so in as far as our trade relationships are concerned, with China it’s very strong.”

Perhaps “highly-placed sources” have tried to fight back against threats by leaking to media.

Regardless of whether the allegations of threats are true or not it is likely that China won’t be happy seeing this played out in public.


Lessons for Key from Australia

Fran O’Sulivan points out that there are lessons for John Key and National from the Australian election (although they should have known it already).

Malcolm Turnbull’s close shave holds lessons for John Key

Malcolm Turnbull’s narrow win in Australia ought to put fellow political brahmin John Key on notice.

The election outcome proved the growing unreliability of political polling in the era of the smartphone.

I disagree on “the growing unreliability of political polling”.  The biggest problem with polling is that media misuse it as a predictor of election results, as far out as two or more years before an election. Journalists seem to have never understood how polling works or have become obsessed with news making and ignore the science of polling.

I doubt that Key or their pollster David Farrar need any lessons on the use of polling.

It took a relatively small swing to Australian Labor to bring the Coalition to the point where Turnbull was even taking advice from Key on how to run a minority Government. It would not take much of a swing in New Zealand to tip Key out.

It would have taken not much of a swing to tip Key out in 2011 and again in 2014 so next year is not much different.

Turnbull is Key’s closest political mate. While Key cosies up to Barack Obama – who has also deputed Vice-President Joe Biden to visit NZ next week to talk through pressing regional issues – the Australian Prime Minister is a different fish.

They have mutual respect as successful former investment bankers. But Key has had more success hugging the political centre.

The Key Government has successfully focused on getting back into Budget surplus and protecting NZ’s credit rating.

A succession of Australian Prime Ministers have not managed that feat.

Turnbull must find his mojo and proceed with broad tax reform – not simply the company tax cuts and relief for middle-income earners. His Government has to write a new story for the times.

He rarked up the electorate with the superannuation changes.

But that will not solve the fundamental imbalances in Australia’s two-tier economy.

And nor will all Key’s advice solve the growing imbalances in the NZ economy.

Turnbull and Australia could learn a lot off Key and New Zealand. I don’t think there’s much to learn from the ongoing political train wreck across the Tasman.

Shewan reccomendations all go

When the Panama Papers were pushed publicly John said there was nothing wrong with how we allowed foreign trusts to use New Zealand, and he claimed that there was nothing wrong with disclosure requirements (as I remember it).

Under pressure Key appointed John Shewan to investigate and report. His recently released report said that our foreign trust laws were not fit for purpose and put New Zealand’s reputation at risk.

Today the Government responded and said they would implement all of Shewan’s recommendations, albeit with a few tweaks.

The official response: Government to adopt Shewan recommendations

The Government is acting on all recommendations from the Shewan Inquiry into foreign trust disclosure rules, Finance Minister Bill English and Revenue Minister Michael Woodhouse announced today.

The Inquiry made a number of recommendations which propose improvements to registration and disclosure of information, anti-money laundering rules and increased information sharing between government agencies.

“The Government has always been open to making improvements to New Zealand’s already strong tax settings if that was warranted,” Mr English says.

“The Shewan Inquiry’s recommendations are sensible and well-reasoned and by acting on all of them, we will ensure that our foreign trust disclosure rules are strengthened and New Zealand’s reputation is protected.

“The changes to the foreign trust rules are a matter that the Government intends to move quickly on.

“The Government intends to introduce legislation to require a register that is searchable by Internal Affairs and the Police, and annual disclosure requirements in the coming months.”

Mr Woodhouse says that while the Government agrees with all of the recommendations from the Shewan inquiry, the way in which a small number are implemented will be tweaked.

“We have already committed to a course of action for strengthening New Zealand’s anti-money laundering rules, which will bring in more comprehensive requirements for lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and others,” Mr Woodhouse says.

“For example, lawyers and accountants will be included in AML/CFT requirements as soon as practicable, However due to issues around legal privilege and regime supervision this will form part of the more substantial AML/CFT reform programme already underway, which is being expedited.”

The good thing about this is that New Zealand’s foreign trust regime and reputation should both be strengthened.

And a lesson to learn is to not take too much notice of Key’s initial reaction to issues foisted on him. Wait to see what he will actually do once he has properly assessed things like need and political risk.

Key from the UK

John Key has arrived in London amidst a fast changing political landscape. When he left New Zealand David Cameron was Prime Minister and both the Conservative and Labour parties were in disarray, both grappling with leadership contests and factional splits.

By the time Key leaves Europe the UK will have Theresa May as Prime Minister and we may know whether calls for a snap election will be heeded or not.

Key was interviewed on Breakfast this morning. Here is the Twitter feed:

“David Cameron was doing some packing when I popped in to see him”

“One thing that has come through is how much the UK values it’s relationship with NZ”

“There is no question that Britain is trying to think about what a world with out close ties to Europe will be like”

“They will be looking around the world, at countries like NZ to see what they have to offer, it’s going to be a long game”

“A lot of people thought about the referendum, but not what things would look like afterwards”

“All of their decisions will come with consequences when it comes to trade with Europe”

Before the overnight changes Newshub reported:

Key: NZ will ‘get there’ with Europe trade agreement

Prime Minister John Key says he’s confident New Zealand can shore up trade deals with European leaders and Britain in the aftermath of Brexit.

Mr Key is stopping over in London to meet with outgoing British Prime Minister David Cameron, before moving on to France and Italy where he’s hoping to push trade interests.

“The challenge always will be with an FTA with Europe, with the likes of French farmers who are less cautious about New Zealand, a little bit with Irish farmers as well, is very large producers, but I think we’ll get there,” he says.

New Zealand has also offered to help Britain beef up its trade negotiating capacity.

With the rapid changes going on in the UK Key’s visit may be unlucky timing and premature given the change of Prime Minister and uncertainty over Brexit, or it may be opportune timing getting in at the forefront of changes.

I suspect the UK and EU leaders will have much bigger and more imminent priorities than a wee country on the other side of the planet.


Compulsory land acquisition

In September last year the Productivity Commission, in its ‘Using Land for Housing’ report, recommended setting up urban development authorities with powers of compulsory land acquisition for housing.

At the time Housing Minister Nick Smith said:

“Obviously the issue of overriding private title for development is a big call, but my view is if we are going to get the quality of urban development, particularly in the redevelopment area where you can often have a real mix of little titles that makes doing a sensible development difficult, in my view it’s one of things we’ll need to consider.”

Just over a week ago at his party’s annual conference John Key said that National was looking in to ‘Urban Development Authorities’ but appears to rule out compulsory land acquisition for housing.

Urban Development Authorities on the way

The government intends introducing legislation later this year to create Urban Development Authorities in areas of high housing need, Prime Minister John Key says.

He told the National Party’s annual conference on Sunday UDAs were being considered, and firmed that up at his post-cabinet press conference on Monday.

“We will consider the best approach to establishing these over the coming weeks with a view to introducing legislation later this year,” he said.

The aim is to give the authorities powers to override barriers to large-scale housing development.

Mr Key says they’ve been used widely and successfully in other countries.

“What’s made them successful is they have total control over the particular area they’re developing, extremely broad-ranging powers,” he said.

Questioned whether they could be given powers to seize land from “landbankers” – people who hang onto land without developing it – he said that wasn’t the government’s intention.

“In the practical world we live in we are not trying to march over the top of peoples’ property rights,” he said.

In policy announced yesterday Labour said they plan to set up a similar type of authority but one that will be able take over private land.

Labour supports compulsory land acquisition for housing development

Labour’s proposed Affordable Housing Authority will have powers to buy land compulsorily, Labour leader Andrew Little says.

The authority will be tasked with partnering with developers to build 10,000 new homes a year priced below $600,000 in Auckland and below $500,000 elsewhere.

Little said it would need to be able to buy land compulsorily to put together land parcels big enough for bulk developments.

“There will have to be acquisition powers with the Affordable Housing Authority,” he said.

“You are trying to partner up with councils and others. The reality is the housing issue is serious and there is going to have to be the means to cut through those barriers.”

However compulsory land acquisition isn’t stated in Labour’s policy as far as I can see, but there are possible hints. From Establishing an Affordable Housing Authority:


  • Establish the Affordable Housing Authority, an independent Crown entity with a fast-tracked planning process, tasked with leading large-scale housing developments and cutting through red tape

The Affordable Housing Authority will have access to fast tracked planning powers to cut through red tape and speed up development

This coordination with communities and the private sector, combined with the Affordable Housing Authority’s powers and control of Crown land, will enable rapid development of large-scale projects focused on affordable housing.

So suggestions of powers without specifying what they will be (and “cut through red tape” would have to have significant power over or make changes to the Resource Management Act).

Perhaps the compulsory acquisition of land at low prices is one way they will keep the houses ‘affordable’.

Is this the beginning of the end for John Key?

Stacey Kirk asks if this is the beginning of the end for John Key. It probably is, Key seems to be in decline politically, but it’s difficult to predict how quickly the end will come. It may be next year, or he may limp into another term with some heavy coalition parties weighing on his legs.

Is National prepared for a post-Key era? Some lessons National and Labour can learn from each other

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not predicting any sudden demise, but familiarity breeds contempt and few politicians have ever had a best before date stretching longer than three terms. 

The Prime Minister’s favourability ratings across all parties’ internal polling have been in slow decline for months.

Internal polls tend to look more comprehensively at favourability ratings, but decline is not apparent from Colmar Brunton:

“Now thinking about all current MPs of any party, which one would you personally prefer to be Prime Minister?” IF NONE: “Is there anyone who is not a current MP who you would prefer to be Prime Minister?”

John Key since July 2015: 40%, 40%, 40%, 40%, 39%, 39%

But eight years in and he still has capital to burn.

Will he have enough to fuel him first across the line for one more election? At this point, it seems likely. 

That’s certainly not down to his Government’s clumsy handling of a housing crisis, spiralling dangerously out of control (and Labour adroitly capitalising on that).

Nor evidence that inequality is rising, New Zealand is all but a tax haven and essential services like public health are stretched to capacity. 

New Zealanders have a long history of simply voting for change when they want it, but the other side to that is what the alternative looks like. 

Not quite there. 

What Little and Robertson lack in dynamic-duo appeal, Key and Finance Minister Bill English have in spades. 

Colmar Brunton rating Andrew Little: 8%, 10%, 8%, 9%, 7%, 7%

In a way lack of a serious contender helps Key, but it may also make him complacent. If Little finds a way to appeal to voters – he can really only get better – Key may not have anything more to compete with than same old.

And attention will increase on what will happen after Key, especially if voters think he may retire mid term should he win another.

The stars of long-speculated Key heir-apparents, Paula Bennett and Steven Joyce, appear to have waned slightly.

Key still highly rates Bennett however, along with Ministers Jonathan Coleman, Simon Bridges and Amy Adams. 

Any of those options would have to foot it as an effective Opposition leader before they’d have a chance at the ninth floor – Key’s unlikely to step down while he still has a grip on power.

It’s not the end yet. 

National haven’t got an obvious successor. That helps secure Key’s position at the top but as time goes on the lack of other options will figure more in voting decisions.

Labour have had a dire eight years since Helen Clark lost and resigned, leaving both a lack of leadership options and a mediocre support cast in caucus.

Can National hang on for another term? And can they survive the loss of key when he goes?

There may not be a credible alternative Prime  Minister to Key in Labour, still, but is their a credible alternative in National’s ranks?

Shadow of Peters in Parliament

Winston Peters is a shadow of his former self in Parliament these days. He seems to be marking time, perhaps saving himself for next years campaign.

But he is using up opportunities to get some of the other NZ First MPs up to speed in Parliament. He doesn’t want to put in the effort but he doesn’t seem to want anyone else to get a chance to overshadow him.

Today he wasted another slot in question time. John Key joined in the waste of time.

Prime Minister—Statements

7. Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS (Leader—NZ First) to the Prime Minister: Does he stand by all his statements?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY (Prime Minister): Yes. In particular, I stand by my statements that the National-led Government is doing a lot to assist senior citizens—in particular, when I said that there has been a 31 percent increase in the married rate of New Zealand Superannuation since 2008, that $41 million has now been allocated in Budget 2016 to support the SuperGold card scheme, providing more certainty for more than 670,000 card holders across New Zealand, that there have been 50,000 more—

Mr SPEAKER: Bring the answer to a conclusion.

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: —elective surgical operations taken.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: When Prime Minister Turnbull was comfortably ahead in the Australian election campaign, why did he go public in supporting Mr Turnbull and cause his support to nosedive?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I think the furthest apart we ever saw it was 51:49, but I am thrilled that the member thinks that I can impact so many voters in Australia.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Why, with his record of endorsements in the Northland by-election, the flag referendum, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, Brexit, the Panama Papers, the housing crisis, and now the Australian election, will he not stop being a scatological Midas?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I will—I will. But I just need to inform him that the last thing I said before I came into the House was: “Winston Peters is going to do well in 2017.” Ha, ha!

Rt Hon Winston Peters: To put my sense of panic at rest now, is it not a fact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have called him, pleading that he not back their campaigns?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: No, neither of them has rung, but if they do, I will be more than happy to have a chat with them about international events, and when I am away next week, you never know whom you might run into.

Shaw versus Key on housing

More on housing in question time in Parliament today.


3. JAMES SHAW (Co-Leader—Green) to the Prime Minister: Ka tū a ia i runga i tāna i whakapūrongotia, “suggesting the Government needed to build more houses was a ‘misplaced’ idea”?

[Does he stand by his reported statement that, “suggesting the Government needed to build more houses was a ‘misplaced’ idea”?]

Rt Hon JOHN KEY (Prime Minister): I stand by my full statement, which was: “I think if you ask the Minister of Finance, the first thing he will tell you is that by far the biggest asset that the Crown owns is Government housing. I think there’s $20 billion sitting in there, broadly, within Housing New Zealand. Secondly, I think the issue of the claim that the Government should start building houses itself I think would be a misplaced one. The Ministry of Works used to be the provider of roads and schools and houses in New Zealand. It wasn’t a very successful model. It’s been much better, actually, for us to go out there and to contract those services.”

James Shaw: Why does he keep saying the Government should not build houses, when previous Governments have successfully built thousands of affordable houses for New Zealand families, like the one he grew up in?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Because the private sector is well and truly equipped to build the houses. What it ultimately needs, though, is planning laws that support that, council plans that support that, and infrastructure that can support those builds. All of those things are happening under this Government. I really seriously think if the member is telling us the answer to resolving the challenges in Auckland’s housing—or indeed housing issues around the country—is to get people employed by the Government as chippies building those houses, I think we would be better to leave it to the private sector.

James Shaw: What has changed between last month, when his Minister for Building and Housing told a Local Government New Zealand delegation that it would be wrong for central government to help out with infrastructure costs, and this month, when he announced a billion dollar fund to help out with infrastructure costs?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: As is always the case with quotes, and as I demonstrated with the one from the member before, they are often taken out of context. But the Government, and in fact the Minister, has been talking to Local Government New Zealand for over a year. These issues of infrastructure have been raised for quite some time, not only by mayors and councils but by others. I would have thought the member would be applauding the fact that the Government is making it easier for the councils to connect up the main infrastructure, to allow affordable and other homes to be built.

James Shaw: Will the Government prevent landbanking and make sure houses actually get built in areas developed with the infrastructure fund, or will it look the other way while speculators make a quick buck, like they did in the special housing areas?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I think it is important to understand that the infrastructure fund is used for infrastructure that connects these subdivisions—ultimately it is the core infrastructure. Developers still have responsibility for the infrastructure on the land that they develop. Interestingly enough, if the member wants to ask the Minister for Building and Housing I am sure he can give you the exact information. But I think of the 200-odd special housing areas, over 130 of them now have works on them. Landbanking is always an issue if there are, potentially, blockages in the system, but ultimately people hold on to land for longer than they otherwise probably should do only if it is such a long way out that they are taking an incredibly long-term view or, more likely than not, that the price rise in land is faster than the cost of capital. By releasing a lot of land on to the market, as we did in Christchurch, you can demonstrate quite clearly that it actually resolved that issue.

James Shaw: Are the Government’s musings about using a Public Works Act to take private land for housing a confession that he has let this crisis get totally out of control?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: No. The Minister for Building and Housing was simply making the point that under an urban development authority (UDA), the powers of a UDA could be quite broad. It is always possible that within an area defined as part of an urban development authority there could be one particular piece of land—or block of land—that might need to be acquired to allow the overall block to be developed; or there may need to be changes in designations like reserves, which could then be replaced somewhere else. That is not really the preference of the Government—to be riding roughshod over property rights—our preference is always to negotiate with parties. But, ultimately, the member himself is admitting that this is a significant challenge and we do need to release more land, faster.

James Shaw: When he said, over the weekend, that there is no room for Government complacency, is there a different word to describe a Government that has stood by while the average Auckland house price shot towards $1 million and the number of people who are homeless increased to record levels?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I do not think it would be a fair criticism to say that the Government has stood back. We have a record level of activity taking place. We have significant parts of the plan—that, actually, the member’s own party has resisted. I think it is worth remembering that if you go back and have a look at the first 3 or 4 years when I was Prime Minister, the issue of housing was not a significant issue. What has turned round in that time is that New Zealand has become a much more attractive destination, interest rates are lower, optimism in the economy is very strong, and the Government’s policies are working—which is actually driving much greater demand in the New Zealand economy. So we have responded to that—that is why there are so many more houses being built in Auckland. Do we need to build some more? Yes, but we are working on that.

James Shaw: Amongst all of the announcements that this Government is making about housing, why is it that the one thing it consistently refuses to do is to actually build more houses?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Well, I thank the member for confirming that the Government has a comprehensive plan for housing, because it does. The very point about building a house is not who employs the builder. It does not matter whether the builder is employed by a ministry in the Government or Fletcher Challenge; they will still face the same issues about the length of time that it takes to put in infrastructure, the length of time that it takes at council to issue the plans, the amount of land that is ultimately available, and the infrastructure that is required to support that. The member seems to miraculously think that, just because the cheque for the wages of a carpenter would come from a Government department and not a private sector company, somehow it would make things go faster—it will not. If the member wants to go faster, then come and support the Government in its Resource Management Act reforms.

Full transcript to all questions and answers.


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