Canberra gene pool needs a shake up

The Australian
18 March, 2007
By Janet Albrechtsen

Federal Parliament, both sides of it, could do with an industrial strength make-over. You know the kind. A sweeping attack on all that dead wood, lots of slimming down and skilling up, leaving you with a better quality of politicians who understand accountability and basic common sense.

Santo Santoro’s failure to abide by rules of disclosure and his failure to avoid conflicts of interest reeks of hypocrisy. While politicians are eager to impose ever more stringent rules of accountability and transparency on the corporate world, they seem to live by a separate set of standards for themselves. His failure to declare shares on the Senate financial register and his breaches of the Ministerial Code of Conduct suggest that elemental standards are not taken seriously. If politicians cannot comply with their own simple laws, it’s rather galling to have them busily enacting thousands of pages of new laws each year intended for the rest of us.

Last October, when the Minister for Aging admitted to the Prime Minister that he owned shares in CBio, a company that manufactures aged care drugs, he said it was an “oversight”. But it turns out there were more than 70 “oversights”. That the Prime Minister had to send letters to other Liberal Party MPs telling them to check that their affairs are in order suggests that politicians need to be reminded about Ethics for Politicians 101. And we are yet to hear the outcome of police investigations involving three Queensland backbenchers for alleged rorting of taxpayer-funded electoral allowances.

Quite apart from complying with rules, a brain snapping lack of simple common sense occurs in even senior politicians. Step forward, former Labor Shadow-Attorney General, Kelvin Thompson. There are no rules telling politicians not to write references for people they don’t know. And neither should there be. It’s just basic common sense. Something in short supply when Thompson wrote a reference in 2000 for Tony Mokbel, a criminal now on the run, wanted for murder. Thompson says he didn’t know the bloke and can’t recall providing the reference. As Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, said “It is unacceptable for a person to be Shadow Attorney-General and the first law officer of the Commonwealth to have provided a letter of support of this nature.” Rudd has initiated a review of MPs providing references. Like Howard’s letter to his MPs, Rudd’s review would not be needed if politicians lived by the same standards they expect from us or even demonstrated high school standards of forethought.

Now, there are plenty of honest, able, smart politicians at senior levels on both sides. Thank God for the good ones. But there are also far more hacks, on both sides, than we should have in the country’s leadership group. How do we improve the parliamentary gene pool? Here’s one idea. We might start by imposing the Trade Practices Act on them. People who run businesses are prohibited from engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct. Imagine if similar rules applied to those running the country. That would put a broom though Parliament and tighten up the empty promises come election time.

Any other ideas?...


philip of redfern (18 March at 07:11 PM)

Actually, it’s the Constitution needs a makeover to remove the dead wood of women’s disadvantage. Replace this silly Parliament with women’s and men’s legislatures presided over by an executive of elders accompanied by courts of women’s and men’s jurisdiction.

Philip, Last time I looked the Constitution was a remarkably gender neutral document, thank goodness.

Janet Albrechtsen
Sun 18 Mar 07 (07:15pm)


Dorry of Emerald Beach (18 March at 02:31 PM)

Could not agree more - Putting a broom through parliment is a very good idea - but you know what they say - the fish always stinks from the head down.

Julie of Lismore (18 March at 02:32 PM)

How about a ‘Politician’s Code of Conduct’ written by the people who vote politicians in. Independently monitored, two strikes and you’re out. That ought to decrease the number of ‘oversights’.

jerry of mackay (18 March at 02:39 PM)

Great idea Janet. Can you use your considerable standing to start pushing for it at The Australian and the ABC? I mean Downer and Vaile should be in court for AWB. Even Liberal voters feel that. Could you start agitating for these guys to be investigated and charged?Thanks.

Nicholas of Balwyn, Melbourne (18 March at 02:39 PM)

Janet, a lot of what you say can be polarising, but in this case, I’d be very surprised to find anyone who disagrees with you. This sort of behaviour from both sides is bizarre and stupid. Who would write a reference for someone they’ve never met? And who would forget about seventy or so share transactions? What we need is a legally binding code of ethics for ministers. At the moment, resignations only really occur on either side if it is politically convenient. Since politicians are careerists, just like the rest of us, they will do whatever is necessary within legal means. So why not just change the laws?

Nicholas, let’s face it. One of the problems is pay. Many know they will earn more in politics than out in the marketplace. Pay peanuts...etc. When we start paying politicians more, we may attract a higher calibre. The bright sparks at the top of their careers are hardly going to march to Canberra on the basis of the current pay scales. I have never been able to work out why CEOs are so handsomely paid for running a business, yet those running the country are paid so poorly. It’s political poison to suggest it, but that does not mean higher pay is not worthy of consideration. Janet Albrechtsen

Sun 18 Mar 07 (05:01pm)

Rob Banks of Stanmore NSW (18 March at 03:03 PM)

You are absolutely right Janet. While we are at it how about the journalists gene pool? Be very very careful, we are hunting politicians and journalists, it’s hunting season!

Rob, Put away your gun. The difference is these are our “elected representatives.” They need to behave like it, and try to match the standards of common sense out in the community rather than go into cruise control on matters of standards.

Janet Albrechtsen
Sun 18 Mar 07 (05:04pm)

Tshirt of Darwin (18 March at 03:05 PM)

Like most people I expect, I am immediately suspicious of each and every uttering from our Pollies. I look for the meaning behind the words, the specious remarks, the damning with feint praise, the total disregard for truth, the manipulation of the facts, and I suspiciously predict a devious intention or outcome.

The media plays its role in this disillusionment. No low too low, no matter too private, no ‘leak’ too incredulous to be written up as fact.

Conflict of interest is difficult to manage on a personal level and on a Govt. level, but an impartial body set up to register and advise might be the answer.But it has to be noted that conflict of interest doesn’t occur in financial terms. Religious belief has far too prominent a role in our secular parliament. Politicians should perhaps declare their religious convictions and stance on issues before they are elected, and once in parliament. And why do we stand by and allow our Pollies to obfuscate about their stand on issues like war, nuclear energy, global warming, assylum seekers, etc. We have the right to know so that we can assess the candidates and weigh up our vote.

Stephen of Emu Park, Qld (18 March at 03:39 PM)

Of course, another problem is that out of that rather small and somewhat feeble gene pool, about half are excluded from the very large number of positions need to run a modern country (cabinet posts for one) by the simple fact that they belong to the party that did NOT win the last election.

There just aren’t enough half-way competent, let alone gifted, people left to fill the many essential roles necessary to run Australia. Frankly, I reckon you’d be pretty stretched to find enough reasonably competent, sane, honest people if you were able to draw from ALL the parties and independents. Perhaps we should be trying to find a way of doing just that.

Barry Everingham of Malvern, Victoria (18 March at 03:42 PM)

Janet, you will need to cease writing...I’m begining to agree with you and if this keeps up I’ll need deep therapy! Again, but only for the second time as far as I can see, you are correct (I try never to write “right"). Let’s start naming names - Downer, Abbott, Vaille, McGuaran for starters. Then Danby - when does he ever ask a question that has nothing to do with Israel? Fielding, Jeannie Ferris (if anyone is in the wrong Party it’s that one) the brothers Ferguson. Even your great hero/mentor/whatever, the Man of Steel is running on empty and if what remains ( I try never to write Left) of the thinkers in the Liberal party have brains they’d bring on a spill next week and replace him with Costello.That way the government might, just might, retain the Treasury benches in the next Parliament. But back to your suggestion - why not trash all National Party members and senators...ease them out...for House elections get real ALP or Liberal candidates to stand against them and for the Senate, place them way down on the ticket so they’d have no hope of being elected.Oh, one exception - put Barnaby at the top of the Queensland section of the Senate ballott paper..Australia needs him. That’s it for what you write Janet’ve ruined my Sunday!

Michael J. of Bendigo (18 March at 03:53 PM)

Fair enough but the problem is that politics seems to attract a lot of shady characters. Either we accept that people are inherently corrupt or we don’t.

If we do then there’s nothing that can be done to improve parliament.

If we don’t then we must screen parliamentarians more rigorously. Parliament should be the place of our most esteemed elders. Presently, it just isn’t the case.

But it’s not only the corporate world that parliamentarians impose double-standards on. Let’s not get hung up on a one-dimensional view. Parliamentarians also impose double standards on welfare recipients, ordinary wage earners and students, requiring them to be impeccable while they are on the take themselves.

Tshirt of Darwin (18 March at 04:07 PM)

Correction. Sorry, obviously what I meant to say was, “.But it has to be noted that conflict of interest doesn’t occur ONLY in financial terms’.

maw of keysborough (18 March at 04:12 PM)

I have recently heard Peter Costello state that two members of the Coalition team were not ‘members of government’ on two separate occasions. The question arises. If these two have been elected by the people as their representatives and they are on the governing side of politics what exactly are they doing there? We the voters expect that the people that we elect will be either in the governing party/parties or in the opposition party/parties. If they are in the governing parties surely they are part of the the government are they not. Now if Peter Costello can’t get that simple fact right what on earth is he doing there???? A right old brooming is needed there I would say. And that is just for being arrogant about the status of his colleagues who happen to be on the back bench. We elected all the members of parliament to govern in one way or another including the ones who happen to be in the opposition. Get that broom out and start with Costello.

Jon of Chatswood (18 March at 04:21 PM)

Unfortunately, if we want to bring the Parliament to account by applying something similar to the TPA, it’s going to have to be through a constitutional amendment and, yes, a referendum. So long as a prospective Act complies with the constitution, the Parliament can pass, change and repeal any Act it likes. If we ask the government to apply the TPA to Parliament, they can say ‘yes’, then modify the Act - or direct the ACCC and NCC - in order to minimise damage. However, that shouldn’t stop us pushing the idea!

John B of Perth (18 March at 04:40 PM)

Howard needs to complete his program if economic fundamentalism I think. I look forward to the member for Pepsi, the Member for NAB, the member for Mitsubishi and the member for QANTAS all taking their seats after the next election. Privatize everything else, why not the politicians? It’s not like the corporate world doesn’t already call the shots in the Howard government.

Odie of Belmont (18 March at 04:49 PM)

Forget the broom. Grenade would be far more effective.

Christopher of Adelaide (18 March at 04:55 PM)

Are we honestly in total denial of the fact that our politicians are somewhat different than the rest of us. That they ONLY enter into the poltical arena due to their overwhelming desire to serve the public good. Of course not. They are self-interested creatures, socially constructed that way and reinforced by our love affair with capitalist logic. This is obvious to any observer who is following the recent smear campaign from both sides of the political fence. Forget about developing good policy initiatives which are meant to make our country a better and more equitable place to live. Just throw insults at the opposition. Some of them really need to grow up but I doubt very much they will.

Despite all this I agree with you, as in the general community, there are many good eggs amongst the bad. There are still many outstanding politicians in parliament fighting the just cause. Lets hope they come forward in the coming months!

Nabley of Adelaide (18 March at 05:09 PM)

Down in this part of Australia a story has been uncovered about a trade union official directing, yes directing a labour sentator how to vote. The story is based on the need for the senator to gain trade union support to get a winnable place on the Senate ticket. How far has this special interest voting penetrated the body politic? It is one thing to have a conflict of interest brought about through stupidity in the Santoro or Thompson cases, it is another to be beholden to powerful interest groups for your vote on matters that impact us all.

Terry of Sydney (18 March at 05:15 PM)

I just got this from the abc site of a statement by Mark Vaile in regards to Santos Santoro resignation, “I hope that the very swift action that’s been taken gives a very clear signal to all Australians that as a Government we are not prepared to accept nor condone this sort of behaviour and very, very sloppy sort of attention to detail and a lax attitude towards the rigour that should apply to all ministers,”

How about he applies the same concept to himself and Alexander Downer in regards to the AWB scandal? No wonder the government is in such a mess when you have ministers who only know how to judge others by strict standards which never apply to one own self!

As Odie of Belmont said, throw in a grenade! A broom won’t do.

lewi0159 of Alice Springs (18 March at 05:15 PM)

There are enough examples of MPs stuffing up. Even after these stuff ups he is still getting paid at. Anyone in private bussiness that did the same things by breaching standards would be out of a job. That is why they do not deserve more money. When they are truely responsible (job and super entitlemnets are on the line) that is when I would agree with paying them more money.

Victoria of Central Coast NSW (18 March at 05:21 PM)

When John Howard said recently that politics is all about arithmetic I think he hit the nail on the head as to what is the cause of the problem you’ve identified. It appears that your membership of the political class is all to do with your ability to wield the numbers ruthlessly and less to do with a degree of deep thoughtfullness,insight and creative thinking about solutions for what ails us as a society. I put forward as my eveidence for my hypothesis Sen. Santo Santoro, who got himself to the almost top of the political tree by being a ruthless factional warlord in Queensland and not much else. Sen. George Brandis on the other hand, an acknowledged deep thinker and intellectual, has stayed languishing on the backbench until this year because he wouldn’t play the PM’s numbers game, sticking by Peter Costello even when it wasn’t in his short term interests. Just the sort of person who should have been a Minister long since, one would have thought.

Which is to say nothing of the ALP, who seem to stolidly stand on principle,oftentimes sound, whilst at one and the same time shooting themselves in the feet playing silly factional games of their own. Generally it appears that if you are dedicated enough to your task of succeeding in politics for what you identify as ideologically correct reasons you will persevere and your talent will out in the end, even if you have to learn how to play a few silly games with numbers along the way to get there...and put up with grown men and women having a go at you for what happened to you as an 11 year old.

You question whether there is any way of choosing better representatives for our parliaments. Not sure really what the answer is there because the humblest train driver can end up making the best Prime Minister and the most successful of men and women in their previous lives can morph into political flatfoots once they grasp the political ring. So no joy there wrt political prerequisites. Basically what I am saying is that we have to find a way to identify the talent which is worthy of the job of national politician but which doesn’t only scoop up the self-promoters but also those who are more self-effacing about their obvious talents. Maybe a covert nomination system, like we have with Australian of the Year ? However, might I also add that we should not only look for those who have been an obvious raging success and should thus not preclude those who have come back successfully from obvious mistakes they have made with their early lives; you miss out on a lot of motivated people that way. It also forges their mettle and shows they can cope with the cut and thrust and the slings and arrows of political fortune.

I’ll just leave with a perspicacious comment from Rudi Bogni, banker and director, which I feel has relevance to this discussion : ‘ The real problem of the 20th century was that the demographic and economic pressures that fractured the empires gave rise to national states with leaderships ill-equipped to face the nihilist challenge. The vacuum was filled by totalitarian regimes...The heirs of the 19th and 20th century nihilists (Hitler,Stalin,Mussolini) are today’s faith-based terrorists. If today’s democracies fail to win against the new nihilists on the intellectual and communication level, they will have no chance to win in the security space and will create another dangerous vacuum, ready to be filled...I hope that the 21st century will see a substantial reduction in political infrastructures...The political systems inherited from the 20th century, whether democratic or totalitarian, are neo-feudal, incompatible with a 21st century when electors vote every so many years, but consumers vote and bloggers blog 24/7.’

John E Coulter of Beijing (18 March at 05:25 PM)

Thanks for prompting responses to this universal question. Is it that we get the politicians we deserve? When ordinary people are doing their own thing, why do some people go to political branch meetings in the evening? Apparently as stakeholders representing others with common interests. If ordinary people are asked to choose at elections, the odds are stacked against them.

leif of tweed (18 March at 05:28 PM)

Agree. There seems to be a decided lack of free thinking in Canberra and most state assemblys too. An enormous amount of time is spent on petty point scoring (who was at which meeting etc) which has (or should have) little impact on the management of the nation. It’s like a kids’ spat. The media is in large part to blame here, empowering this sad behaviour by brandishing it across front pages - Gillard shooting at Vanstone’s Chinese lessons is today’s version. You can’t get on with the job if you are contantly defending yourself against cheap shots. People of intellectual and moral stature seem rare, and the word ‘hack’ seems most appropriate a lot of the time. Tom Uren had presence and Malcolm Turnbull seems to have a bit too. And Barnaby and Ruddock seem to have the job in focus at least. Never popular, but I’d venture to say that if we paid pollies better dough we’d get better people. Who in their right mind is going to go into a fishbowl, 24/7 job for a hundred plus thousand. I rarely have admiration for candidates and often feel that I’m just voting for the lesser of two weivels.

brownie of sydney (18 March at 05:29 PM)

G’day Janet, When my first son was born 10 years ago, a wise colleague gave me the advice : “if your son is really smart make sure he goes into business, if he’s a middle of the road plodder go into medicine, if he’s useless for anything then politics”. Sure it gives you journalists something to write about but any reasonable person out there surely knows that politics is really not something thats worth taking too seriously.

David Klein of Golden Square Vic (18 March at 05:36 PM)

Janet, re your comment to Nicholas of Balwyn, Melbourne (18 March at 02:39 PM) The notion of pay peanuts get monkeys has evolved. Today it also reflects pay macadamias and get morons. In other words, pay just enough but not too much; cashews might do the trick.

bg (18 March at 05:42 PM)

re: pay peanuts and get monkeys, The best paid politicians in the country are allegedly the WA state politicians, they are the ones taking brown paper bags from Brian Burke.

I beg to differ on pay.

If people are criminally minded the sum of money is barely relevant.

I would be more inclined to agree with “smaller government” theories.

For instance if John Howard could be prised away from his public service firewall, he could have their remuneration for himself. He would also have to take responsibility for various of his actions.

Purps of Melbourne (18 March at 06:01 PM)

Janet, I agree that, at the ministerial level (and perhaps the shadow ministry?) pay is a real issue. If the party system weren’t so riddled with nepotism, then talented people might more easily make the transition between the market and politics. A revamp of rules for preselection and for appointment as Prime Minister might open up the field. On another tack, I am inspired by the shift being made by Bill Moss, a senior Macquarie Bank exec who is leaving the bank in the next week or so and will work with indigenous people to help build indigenous remote communities, through commercial initiatives. Ultimately, politics are, and should be, about serving the public. I’m all for having among our pollies people who have already made their money and bring their industry experience (or teaching, or health, or law) to bear for the country. Do we really need or want only career politicians?

Iain F of Syndey (18 March at 06:13 PM)

I don’t think that would be a very good idea, nor is it particularly necessary. If people feel politicians are misleading them, they can simply vote them out. Or of course, if it is too scandalous, the party will probably throw them out beforehand, as was the case with Thompson and Santoro. Thus it is unnecessary to have some sort of hit squad or whatever you are suggesting to clean out unthruthful politicans.

Furthermore, if there was a separate body, with the power to remove politicians for lying or loose ethics or whatever, it would be a perversion of democracy. The people decide who goes to parliament, and the people remove them, not bureaucrats. What’s more, people know that politicians lie: people regularly rate politicians as the most untrustworthy group of people there are. However, even when politicians do lie, or appear a bit dodgy, people might still trust them to handle other things, and so not punish them for their looseness with the truth.

A case in point is the 2004 election. It had emerged that Howard had probably lied about the “Children Overboard” affair. If this authority you are suggesting existed, Howard would have been forced from parliament, and Latham would have won from default, which would have been precisely opposite to what the people ended up intending. Basically, it is a stupid idea, because it takes the power to choose the leaders of this country away from the people and give it to some unaccountable bureaucracy (appointed by whom i wonder?), which I’m sure is not what you, deep down, want, Janet.

Russell of Perth (18 March at 06:22 PM)

Vale Guy Fawkes, the last person to enter parliament with good intentions.

philip of redfern (18 March at 06:32 PM)

Actually it’s the Constitution which needs the makeover.

Digger of Australia (18 March at 06:41 PM)

Regardless of how you look at it, it is purely an going game between mobs competing for power to gain ‘More Bush Tucker’ whether they are clergies, politicians, journalists, clearners or garbage collectors.

It is really a compex, corrupt and bigot world. Each tribe are defending and covering up on their own interests. Meanwhile, each race is covering up and defending its

Your best bet to ignore it all and go as a free person or family or what every it is to make a decent living in what ever area you enjoy to do and excell in under the law with out wasting your time, energy and hot air for nothing what so ever.

John B of Perth (18 March at 06:48 PM)

I should add, in their defense...our politicians are actually pretty good. No, I know no one want’s to hear it...but they are. I’ve lived in America. As a former Ex-pat I know their system. We have actual democracy here. Over there, the politicians choose the voters, not the other way around. They have a system that actually encourages and makes corporate bribery legal. What the public want always comes a poor second to what the industry lobby groups want.

And to cap it all off, on average, every American electorate is meant to represent over half a million people and the odds of an incombent actually losing his/her seat is close to nil, and have a horrific voting system actually run by partisan private companies who’ve never in their life heard of the “preferential” voting system we have here that gives us some sort of actual first, second and third choices.

No, our pollies may sometimes be incompetent, muck up or perform the occassional criminal act, but we have the best, most representative system in the world here. We truly are the lucky country. ( At least until Howard increases the “donation” limits, makes voting voluntary and makes a few other destructive changes to our way of life )

Mike Bolan of Launceston (18 March at 06:53 PM)

What about Australian Workplace Agreements for the government, including politicians. The agreement start with their election promises, they define the baseline for performance. Substandard performance in an area merits a salary/benefit cut, say superannuation cut to 1/2, or lose private health cover paid by us...that kind of thing. 3 strikes and they’re out I say. If it’s a good idea for the workforce, why not the government (I know, they’re not part of the workforce but bear with me eh?)

100% All Beef Party of Sydney (18 March at 06:55 PM)

Three things.

Legislate these guidelines to allow independant assessment of these breaches when they occur. The deterrent is stronger if the offence and the punishment is codified. Of course given that the legislators are the targets of the legislation the chance that this will happen is zero.

Second. Let’s have some politicians who have real world experience rather than someone who is a lawyer/unionist/young labor-liberal member turned staffer. Candidates with talent and an understanding of what exists outside the political cloister are a pleasant alternative. Also, I think the quota of lawyers elected should be capped. Did I mention less lawyers please?

And last, as unpopular as it is, I agree with you that the salaries paid to politicians are rubbish. Even when you do factor in all the allowances that politicians are entitled to, when their role is considered, it looks meagre. Sure, most of us out there in worker land won’t ever earn that dough, (or that superannuation), but most of us can remain anonymous, have weekends off, not have to spend most of our time in Canberra and attend to the trifling matter of running the country.

colin campbell of Adelaide (18 March at 06:58 PM)

The maggots are coming to the surface on a daily basis. I absolutely agree with your comments about one rule for appalingticians and another for you and me. I mean talk about arrogance. It is good that we have a choice to get rid of them. Please Australia, take your chance.

philip of redfern (18 March at 07:11 PM)

Actually, it’s the Constitution needs a makeover to remove the dead wood of women’s disadvantage. Replace this silly Parliament with women’s and men’s legislatures presided over by an executive of elders accompanied by courts of women’s and men’s jurisdiction.

Philip, Last time I looked the Constitution was a remarkably gender neutral document, thank goodness.

Janet Albrechtsen
Sun 18 Mar 07 (07:15pm)

Rob Banks of Stanmore NSW (18 March at 07:19 PM)

OK Janet I’ve holstered the spud gun. Now back to the topic. I am wondering if either Party will re-write the Ministerial Code of Conduct to include a ‘Santo Clause’? May have to wait until we are near Xmas for that.

Rod of Brisbane (18 March at 07:32 PM) Should apply to the press gallery too.

philip of redfern (18 March at 07:40 PM) The Constitution was oxymoronically ‘gender neutral’ at Federation. It isn’t now. Neither is the Parliament. Ask Amanda. It’s not the same Constitution because it’s now within the realm of women’s minds. Ask Justice Crennan.

Tim of Sydney (18 March at 08:02 PM)

Indeed. Petro Georgiou, and Simon Crean are two wastes of space that should be removed by their respective parties. I’m sure there are another 20 or 30 who should be clubbed like harp seals. The trouble is allot of the dead wood has a fair bit of power. Labour needs to get rid of the teachers and lawyers while the libs need to attract a few more small and medium business owners. Party on Tim

Commie of Sydney (18 March at 08:02 PM)

What do we have to pay to get really talented people into parliament. Who is there to choose from? We could clone Winston & J.F.K. from D.N.A. but they weren’t aussies? What about Obama & Tiger? They are still alive. If we could partner them with Kylie & Elle we might end up with fantastic models & vocalists but no guarantee of the result we need. How about pairing Mid Night Oil with the female eunuch? or Banjo Paterson with Amanda Vanestone? Really, when you start thinking about it there are no end of possibilities. Wran with Pauline, Peter Beatty with Thatcher, Rene Rivkin with...........

dan the geo of qatar (18 March at 08:16 PM)

Who will be the first to point out that Journalists should evidently be paid more too!

Oh Dan, top marks to you! Of course, that’s where this is all heading. In my dreams.

Janet Albrechtsen
Sun 18 Mar 07 (08:20pm)

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