Tasmanians for a Better Future

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

Tasmanians for a Better Future was a front group for mostly anonymous business interests which launched a major television, radio and newspaper advertising campaign seeking to undermine potential support for the Tasmanian Greens in the March 18, 2006 Tasmanian state election.

The campaign

The advertising campaign was launched at the end of February 2009, a little over two weeks before the election. Opinion polls indicated that the most likely outcome of the election will be a minority government with the Tasmanian Greens, which held four seats, holding the balance of power. The content of the Tasmanians for a Better future advertisements dovetailed in with the Labor Party's interests. Labor Premier, Paul Lennon, argued that "only Labor can deliver stable, majority government" and its campaign slogan "building a better Tasmania".[1] (See Tasmanians for a Better Future advertisements for the full details of the advertisements).

Another anti-Green campaign came from the Exclusive Brethren members, Scottsdale farmer Roger Unwin and another Scottsdale man Trevor Christian, which made claims about the Tasmanian Greens policies on same-sex marriage and transgender rights.[2]

Print advertisements

"This election is vitally important for Tasmania. We urge our fellow Tasmanians to vote to ensure majority government," a Tasmanians for a Better Future newspaper advertisement stated. Under the headline, the advertisement featured a dozen photos of individuals and families that endorsed the advertisement.

The text to the advertisement stated "Tasmania suffered badly under past hung parliaments and minority governments. Development was lost and investment dried up. Unemployment was high, young people were leaving and families were packing up and heading for the mainland, and the property market was a basket case. We don't want that to happen again. Today, we head the growth table for the nation. The state has never been more prosperous. Ensure Tasmania's future stays bright. On 18 March, vote for strong, stable majority government." The authorisation stated "Tasmanians for a Better Future. Written and authorised by T. Harrison for Tasmanians for a Better Future, 85 Macquarie Street, Hobart, 7000."

Kids Ad

Tasmanians for a Better Future 'kids' ad. (A higher resolution version of the ad is available here.)

One of the Tasmanians for a Better Future ads went for an upbeat positive image offsetting the attack ad purpose. "This election is vitally important for Tasmania," the headline stated over the top of two adults swinging a child between them on the beach. "Ensure Tasmania's future stays bright. On 18 March, vote for strong, stable, majority government."

House ad

Tasmanians for a Better Future homes ad (See here for a higher resolution version of the ad)

If the 'kids' ad was upbeat, the 'house' ad played on the fear factor of a minority government. It featured a collapsed house underneath the headline "How a hung parliament will hit your home". It stated that "under a hung parliament, from 1996-98 Tasmanian media house prices fell to less than $110,000 in Hobart and in Launceston to less than $83,000", with the data referenced to "Real Estate Institute of Australia media house prices data".

"In contrast, the five years from 2000 saw media house prices more than double." The ad concluded "don't risk the value of your home on the uncertainty of a hung parliament. Don't go back to falling house prices".

In the aftermath of the election, Greens MP Nick McKim hit out at the house price ads run by Tasmanians for a Better future which "implied that peoples' houses would fall down if a balance-of-power parliament was elected by Tasmanian people and certainly stated that house prices would crash. The problem with all this is that it is very close to, if not exactly, a self-fulfilling prophecy and that is the danger, of course, with what the top-end of town, or at least Michael Kent and his shadowy group, actually did. They run the risk of insuring that when there is a balance-of-power parliament in this state business confidence will suffer."[3]

The TBF campaign, he argued, was "straight out of John Howard's campaign book. Remember those interest rates? Remember what Mark Latham was going to do to your mortgages? I remember what the Liberal Party said about that ... No, it is no more true than your house prices will collapse if there is a balance-of-power parliament in Tasmania - neither of those statements are true but they hit people. ... By hitting that very sensitive area, John Howard drafted the blueprint and Paul Lennon followed up on it with some of his mates from the top end of town during this State election campaign. We got the Tassie version of John Howard's fear campaign."[3]

Television advertisements

Two television commercial commercials showed a blue collar worker and a young family, played by actors, who made a plea for a majority government. "We want the security of knowing that Tasmania will stay this way, that it won't return to the bad old days of the mid 90s," the television ad featuring the couple stated.[4]

One of the people featured in the television advertisements was actor, Ben Allen, who landed the role from an acting agency. Allen told Matthew Denholm from The Australian that he was a Greens voter and did not really believe in the theme of the advertisement he featured in. "I don't really share that view -- I'm just acting. I usually vote Green. It was just a role that I took on basically to get paid," he said.[1]

Authorisation for the advertisements

The advertisements were authorised by Tony Harrison, the Managing Director of Corporate Communications Tasmania, a public relations company that has run campaigns for logging and mining companies. Harrison told the Mercury that funding for the ads had come from "a group of concerned Tasmanian businesses and community people".[5] Harrison also told Australian Financial Review' journalist, Julie Macken, that "the group began with about 20 people and it’s grown to about 50 or 60." Macken noted that Harrison "refused to name anyone involved in the group or what kind of budget the group had to run its political campaign. But he confirmed the group was not incorporated, was not a political party and was not a business or a charity."[6]

Reaction of the political parties

The major political parties supported the advertising campaign. Mercury reporter, Sue Neales, reported that "a Lennon Government spokesman was adamant there was 'absolutely no government money' in the secretive majority ad campaign. 'Although we are the only ones who can realistically form a majority government, according to the polls,' said government spokesman Matt Rogers".[4] The State Secrtary of the Australian Labor party, David Price, stated that "the ALP has got no association or no knowledge of this group and has had no contact with them and has got nothing to do in any association with this group whatsoever. And to imply in a roundabout way or directly that we have is scurrilous, untrue, unfounded and unjustified."[7] Late in the election campaign, after Michael Kent identified himself as one of the funders, Lennon stated that he did not know who was funding the campaign.[8]

The Liberal Party denied any knowledge in what they referred to as a "cloaked campaign". "But their message of majority government is a good one as that is what the Liberals want to achieve at this election and we won't settle for anything less," said Liberal state secretary Damien Mantach.[4] Following the revelation that Kent was helping funding the campaign, Liberal leader Rene Hidding, said "now we find it is a close friend of the Premier's, who sits on several government boards and who is chairman of the TCCI who is funding an anonymous, quasi-political advertising campaign that is supporting Labor. It's, like we have been saying, part of the Premier's same culture of special deals for special mates. Except this time it is the other way round.. This is the Premier's special mates paying him back for all the good deals he has sent their way during the previous two years. It's payback time."[8]

The Parliamentary leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Peg Putt, stated that "It could be the forest industry. It could be other corporate mates of the Lennon Government but they must come clean. It is just unconscionable that there is this huge injection into trying to influence the election and its shadowy figures who will not make themselves known."[7] Later in the campaign, Putt said of both the Exclusive Brethren and Tasmanians for a Better Future campaigns that "our democracy is looking fragile with these groups hiding themselves whilst spending up big to defame the Greens and the problem is compounded because the material being distributed is untrue and sets out to deceive voters over the Tasmanian Greens' current policies."[2] After Kent outed himself as a funder, Putt stated that "now that it's come out into the open that it's Lennon's corporate mates like Michael Kent who are funding Tasmanians for a Better Future, it's no wonder they are singing from the same songsheet. But he can't claim it's a grassroots movement anymore."[8]

In a letter to the editor, Tasmanian Greens candidate, Cassy O'Connor, wrote that "the nature of the Tasmanians for a Better Future TV advertising is opaque and deceptive. All we know for certain is that it is authorised by Tony Harrison from Corporate Communications -- public relations agents for the likes of John Gay and Lang Walker who failed to push through a toxic and unpopular canal development in Ralphs Bay late last year. The Walker plan was defeated by people power, and that is what's at stake here. Corporate Communications represents the big end of town, not the great breadth of Tasmanian people who this ad campaign treats with contempt. And on its ardently pro-development, anti-conservation track record, nor does Corporate Communications represent the best interests of democracy and the Tasmanian environment. It all begs the question -- a better future for whom?".[9]

Reaction of business lobby groups

In early March, the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, The Australian reported, "called on voters to back majority government."[1] Two weeks later Damon Thomas from the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry released the results of a survey of business. The survey, it claimed, indicated concern about the risks of a minority government. "It's a surprise just how significant the vote was in the survey in favour of majority government," said Damon Thomas, executive director of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "We got a very large 'yes', particularly from a large number of small and micro-businesses who may not have had any direct experience of minority."[10]

Michael Kent said that the survey was "a very, very clear message to us that a minority government will sink Tasmania."[11]

Funding

Initially, the cost of the campaign was estimated to cost over $100,000. (After the election, the Greens estimated that $300,000 had been spent on the campaign).[12] ABC News reported that "the Labor and Liberal parties say they do not know the identity of the business people backing the campaign and the Chamber of Commerce has denied it is involved."[13] However, under the Tasmanian Electoral Act, advertisements are only required to carry authorisation by the company producing the ads.

The Commissioner of the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, Bruce Taylor, said that under Tasmanian electoral law there was no obligation to disclose who was funding the campaign. "There are no state disclosure laws as far as political donations," he said. "There are federal donation laws which would affect any state parties that are registered federally, but those donations would not be disclosed until February of next year."[14] "Provided advertisements are authorised, there is no further obligation on people placing advertisements," he said.[13] The logging company Gunns declined to respond to questions on whether it was funding the ads.[15]

Harrison told Mercury journalist, Sue Neales, that the identity of the funders was confidential. Funding, he said, came from "a group of concerned Tasmanian businesses and community people" supporting majority government.[4] In response to a letter to the editor from Greens candidate, Cassy O'Connor, Harrison wrote that "Tasmanians for a Better Future, is comprised of concerned citizens who are urging their fellow Tasmanians to vote to give one political party a parliamentary majority in the forthcoming election. Their desire is for a stable political climate that enables Tasmania to progress and build on the achievements of the past few years. They want a government that is able to make decisions in the best interests of Tasmania and not one that has to constantly suffer the threat of being forced to another election at the whim of minority sectional interests. Those involved in and supporting Tasmanians for a Better Future are ordinary Tasmanians, not the so-called big end of town as claimed by Ms O'Connor ... The current advertising campaign calling for stable, majority government is being funded by individual donations from these concerned Tasmanians", he wrote.[16]

Kent Outs Himself as a Campaign Funder

Late in the election campaign period, businessman Michael Kent revealed himself as one of the financial backers of the group.[17]"There are a number of business people, there are a number of TCCI members that are supportive of that process and I'll be honest with you, I have financially supported that organisation myself because I strongly believe we must maintain a majority government," he told ABC radio.[18]

North-West Tasmanian businessman John White stated that he did not contribute to the campaign. Barry Chipman, the spokesman for the timber industry front group, Timber Communities Australia, stated that it did not contribute to the campaign. "With the amount of money spent on the federal election, where our members' careers were on the line, we're confident this time. We've tended to focus on direct contact with both major parties," Chipman said. However, the major logging company, Gunns did not respond to an inquiry.[8]

Walker Corporation Query

After Paul Lennon revived the proposal by the Walker Corporation for a canal estate development in the aftermath of the election, the Leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Peg Putt, asked in parliament whether "Lang Walker or his company contributed funds to the mysterious Tasmanians for a Better Future, which popped up and executed a massive advertising campaign, essentially in favour of your Government, in the election campaign? Is your resuscitation of the heinous Ralphs Bay proposal the pay-off? How will any one ever know, given the enormous loopholes in electoral disclosure laws in this State? Do we not need to deal with crony capitalism here and now?" Lennon denied that the Walker Corporation had made any donation to the Labor Party.[19]

Federal Hotels Accused But Denies Involvement

In early November 2009, the Leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Nick McKim, told state parliament that "I am going to put on the record who I believe was in Tasmanians for a Better Future and where they got their money from."[20]

On November 18, 2009 McKim told Parliament that "I can reveal that Federal Hotels, massive beneficiaries of Labor decisions and policies over the years, was the major source of funds for Tasmanians for a Better Future. In fact, they coughed up around half the total six-figure spend of that organisation. This is a company that has received licences for nothing from Labor for monopoly deals on poker machines worth more than $100 million over the life of the deal, according to one independent consultancy, that secretly contributed massive sums of money to an organisation that was campaigning directly for the return of the Labor Party but did not declare it, did not say it publicly and kept it all behind closed doors."[21]

However, the spokesman for Federal Hotels, Brendan Blomeley rejected the accusation and told The Mercury that neither the Federal Group nor the Farrell family and associated companies had been involved in the campaign. "We categorically reject this baseless claim. Mr McKim should be ashamed for using parliamentary privilege to mount this scurrilous attack.", he said. Michael Stedman also reported that Tony Harrison could not be contacted and that a government spokesman stated that there was "absolutely no government money invested the campaign.[22]

In response to Federal Hotels denial, McKim withdrew the accusation. The following day he told the House of Assembly that he made his claim "in good faith with information from multiple sources and, because I believed it to be true, I regarded it as my responsibility as an elected MP to make the assertion in the interests of transparency. As we do not have State donations disclosure laws in Tasmania, and Tasmanians for a Better Future have never disclosed its membership or funding sources, there is shamefully no way Tasmanians can know exactly how this organisation was funded. Nevertheless, Federal Hotels are reported in today's media as having denied any association with the Tasmanians for a Better Future campaign ... I take Federal Hotels' denial at face value and therefore, if what Federal Hotels have said is true, I withdraw the assertion and I apologise to Federal Hotels."[23]

Blomeley told The Mercury that he was "pleased he [McKim] has taken the appropriate action and apologised.[24]

The views of the analysts

A week out from the election Mercury columnist, Wayne Crawford, argued that "it would seem the expensive advertising campaign being financed by Tasmanians For A Better Future, a shadowy group, is probably a waste of their money ... The 18 per cent or so of electors who vote Green will do so, regardless of the pleas of Tasmanians For A Better Future; and the remainder will be split between Labor and Liberal, with the ALP getting the most, although probably not enough to form majority government. All the Tasmanians For A Better Future campaign has really served to do is evoke memories of the Edmund Rouse bribery scandal of 1989, when an equally shadowy group called Concerned Citizens for Tasmania ran a campaign to voice protest about the then Labor-Green Accord government and try to drum up support for a fresh election. The Royal Commission into the bribery affair found the group was entirely fictitious and a partisan Liberal device to mislead the community into believing a group of people had spontaneously come together to express their concern. There's no suggestion Tasmanians For A Better Future is in any way similar but the secrecy surrounding its composition -- its spokesman Corporate Communications managing director Tony Harrison has said they want to remain anonymous so as not to be subjected to personal vitriol -- makes it hard to take the group seriously." he wrote.[25]

The day before the election, communications consultant Natasha Cica wrote that "despite an early swell of opinion poll support away from the two major parties towards the Greens, Labor has regained traction in the course of its campaign. That's despite pre-election imputations surrounding Lennon enjoying lavish Crown Casino corporate hospitality days before signing the $700 million PBL Betfair deal with Packer, more recent allegations of impropriety in relation to about $100,000 of government contracts awarded to Lennon's brother's company, Global Value Management, plus revelations that Lennon's luxurious home was renovated by Hinman, Wright and Manser, the civil construction division of woodchipping giant Gunns Ltd that has benefited from Lennon's pro-logging stance."

"How has Lennon's Labor clawed its way back?," she asked rhetorically. "It's the strategy, stupid. First, Labor has run a tight, hard, fear campaign against the Greens, based on predictions of economic ruin if Labor does not govern in its own right. Emulating the Liberals' successful interest rates scare sheets at the 11th hour of the 2004 federal campaign, Labor has warned of massive slumps in Tasmania's buoyant-as-never-before housing prices if the Greens gain more power. As Australia's newest winners in the real estate game, Tasmanian home owners may prove particularly susceptible. The chairman of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also part of an organisation called Tasmanians For A Better Future that's been bankrolling a majority-government advertising campaign, has now publicly stated he sees little difference between Labor and Liberal policies — giving de facto support to this plank of Lennon's campaign."[26]

The Australian reporter, Matthew Denholm, wrote that "fear and loathing, rather than positive visions for the future, have marked the closing stages of an at times vitriolic election campaign in Tasmania. The two main parties, backed by some anonymous mates in big business and an evangelical church, have pounded the third force in Tasmanian politics, the Greens, with scare campaigns and smear. Labor under Premier Paul Lennon has warned of economic disaster if the Greens secure a supporting role for a minority government. The same message came from a mysterious group, Tasmanians for a Better Future, which dug deep into the pockets of its mostly anonymous backers to cover TV screens and newspaper pages with warnings against minority government," he wrote.[27]

ANZ chief economist, Saul Eslake said that "I don't believe the historical record suggests that a minority government would be necessarily as bad for Tasmania as both major political parties say it would be."[27]

Calls for election donations reform

In the wake of the election outcome, the Tasmanian Greens called for reform of the election donation legislation. Other states, such as Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, all have legislation governing state election campaigns. "Openness and accountability in elections need a spruce-up in Tasmania, which shamefully has no state-based electoral disclosure laws," said Peg Putt. "This has allowed groups and individuals to set out with large amounts of money to influence the election without ever identifying themselves or the amount of funds spent. Clearly we have to be suspicious about what individuals and companies are protecting their vested interests and deals with government if they won't be open and forthright about who they are and how much they are spending."[28]

The commissioner of the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, Bruce Taylor, agreed that the funders of groups such as the Tasmanians for a Better Future should be disclosed. "I support the idea that we ought to know where this funding is coming from, but as I say it has to be meaningful laws to achieve that end, otherwise it may be a pointless exercise," he said."One of the problems is that you're not going to find out for some time after the event usually, exactly where they've come from. And the second problem appears to be with these that it's hard to actually pinpoint the real source of the funds, sometimes they can certainly be channelled through various organisations and it may still be difficult to prove where the money came from," he said.[29]

Several months later, Green MP, Nick McKim, argued that the Tasmanians for a Better Future campaign aillustrated the need for "strong disclosure laws" so that "those Tasmanian people going to the polls have an understanding of the context within which certain representations have been made to them and of the people who have paid for those representations to be made."[3]

Corporate Communications Award Bid

In 2006 Tony Harrison from Corporate Communications made a submission nominating the Tasmanians for a Better Future campaign for a Public Relations Institute of Australia Golden Target Award.[30] "Our values have led to our success as the most awarded communication consultancy in Tasmania," CC boasts on its website. One of the awards it is proud of is the campaign that it ran for "the ‘Tasmanians For a Better Future’ campaign for the Tasmanian business lobby".[31]

Harrison Sues The Mercury

In late July 2006 Harrison sued Sue Neales, a reporter from The Mercury, Garry Bailey, the editor of the Mercury, and Davies Brothers, the publisher of newspaper. The legal action was over the March 22, 2006 article "Ad man lands in hot water" by Sue Neales. In the statement of claim, Harrison stated that he had been "greatly injured in his credit and reputation and has been brought into ridicule and contempt and has suffered loss and damage" from the publication of the article. In particular, he argued that the article conveyed a number of ordinary meanings to the effect that he had "become embroiled in professional difficulties", that he "had appeared to have breached the code of the Public Relations Institute of Australia". He also argued that the article implied that his "behaviour had fallen short of the professional standards to be observed and expected of a member of the public relations profession and particularly a member of the Public Relations of Australia" and that he was "likely to be the subject of disciplinary proceedings" by PRIA.[32]

The Mercury rejected the claims that the article was defamatory. In its statement of defence, the defendents argued that even if the words were taken to refer to Harrison other than in his capacity as chairman of Corporate Communications and if they were considered to be defamatory "then the words complained of were substantially true" at the date the article was published. It also argued that the "contextual imputations" of the article were substantially true and that it was "reasonable in the circumstances" of an election campaign. After listing a number of journalists who had requested details from Harrison as to who was funding the Tasmanians for a Better Future campaign without success rebuffed, the newspaper argued that neither Harrison or his company had identified the source of funding for the campaign.[33]

After Harrison submitted an amended statement of claim in mid-March 2007[34]. The following week The Mercury submitted an amended defence statement.[35]

Several months later the case was settled out of court. The Mercury published an apology to Harrison in September. "The Mercury accepts that the Public Relations Institute of Australia found that there was no case to answer in relation to the complaint against Mr Harrison. The Mercury regrets any damage to Mr Harrison's reputation that was caused by the publication of the story."[36] In October 2009 Harrison filed a notice to the Supreme Court of Tasmania to discontinue the action.[37]

Articles and Resources

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Matthew Denholm, "Mystery adverts have Greens seeing red", The Australian, March 3, 2006 NSW Country Edition, page 8.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robyn Grace, "Tas: Christian group attacks Greens policies", AAP, March 15, 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Address-In-Reply", House of Assembly Hansard, May 31, 2006.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Sue Neales, "Mystery of the majority push", The Mercury, March 1, 2006.
  5. "Anger and intrigue surround mystery ads", ABC News Online, March 2 2006. (This article cites the Mercury story).
  6. Julie Macken, "Logging money talks loudly in battle for Tasmanians' votes", Australian Financial Review, March 3, 2006.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Tim Jeanes, "Mystery group funds Tas election ad campaign", PM, February 28, 2006.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "Upfront donors in the minority", The Mercury, March 17, 2006.
  9. Cassy O'Connor, "Big end of town", Letter to the Editor, The Mercury, March 6, 2006.
  10. Andrew Darby, "Business backs majority government", The Age, March 14, 2006.
  11. "Show your hands, Green critics told", The Mercury, March 16, 2006.
  12. Sue Neales, "Greens come-clean pledge on poll ads", The Mercury, 31 March 2006.
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Tasmania guesses at election ad backers", ABC News (Tasmania), February 28, 2006.
  14. "Tas business people get behind majority government", ABC News, February 27, 2006.
  15. Sue Neales, "Mystery of the majority push", The Mercury, March 1, 2006.
  16. Tony Harrison, "Vitriol", Letter to the Editor, The Mercury, March 7, 2006.
  17. Michelle Paine, "Show your hands, Green critics told", The Mercury, March 16, 2006.
  18. Robyn Grace, "Tas: Christian group attacks Greens policies", AAP, March 15, 2006.
  19. "Lauderdale Quay Development", House of Assembly Hansard, July 6, 2006.
  20. "Public Interest Disclosures Amendment Bill 2009 (No. 86), House of Assembly Hansard, November 4, 2009.
  21. "Political Donations", House of Assembly Hansard, November 18, 2009.
  22. Michael Stedman, "Greens hit Federal as ALP backer", The Mercury, November 19, 2009, page 2.
  23. "Personal Explanation", House of Assembly Hansard, November 19, 2009.
  24. Michael Stedman, "Red-faced Green flips Federal's denial accepted by McKim", The Mercury, November 20, 2009, page 7.
  25. Wayne Crawford, "Dirt and desperation", The Mercury, March 11, 2006.
  26. Natasha Cica, "Voters set to return Lennon", The Age, March 17, 2006.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Matthew Denholm, "Scare and smear campaign against the Greens", Weekend Australian, March 18, 2006.
  28. "Tas: Greens to push for electoral disclosure laws", AAP, March 30, 2006.
  29. "Electoral commissioner flags disclosure laws review", ABC News, 27 March 2006.
  30. Tony Harrison, Corporate Communications Tas, "Tasmanians for a Better Future Campaign", Public Relations Institute of Australia 2006 Golden Target Awards & State Awards for Excellence, 2006.
  31. "Our achievements", Corporate Communications website, accessed November 2009.
  32. Murdoch Clarke (for Tony Harrison), "Statement of Claim", July 26, 2006, page 3.
  33. Butler McIntyre & Butler (for The Mercury), "Defence", August 10, 2006.
  34. Murdoch Clarke (for Tony Harrison), "Amended Statement of Claim Pursuant to an Order of the Master Made 13 March 2007", March 15, 2007.
  35. Butler McIntyre & Butler (for The Mercury), "Amended Defence Filed and Delivered in response to the Plaintiff's Amended Defence Dated 15 March 2007", March 21, 2007.
  36. "Getting It Straight", The Mercury, September 22, 2009, page 3.
  37. Murdoch Clarke (for Tony Harrison), "Notice of Discontinuance or Finalisation", October 9, 2007.

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