If the polls are to be believed, Winston Peters and New Zealand First will be gone after this election. Moana Maniapoto sat down with him recently for Te Ao with Moana. This is an edited transcript of that chat.
He’s one of the most recognisable politicians in Aotearoa. Winston Peters (Ngāti Wai) grew up in the north and is the sixth of 11 siblings, including brothers Jim and Ian, who also became MPs.
In 1975, Winston was part of a group which challenged a plan by Labour to establish public coastal land reserves across his rohe. Yet the current deputy prime minister in the Labour-led coalition has been outspoken against any government deal for Ihumātao.
In 1975, he stood unsuccessfully for National in the Northern Māori electorate and entered parliament in the following election as the MP for Hunua, becoming only the fourth Māori to win a general electorate. In 1996, Winston and his party New Zealand First took out all six Māori seats. Yet, in 2017, he campaigned to abolish them.
He’s often been touted as “the first Māori prime minister” and has even polled as most favoured PM. Yet, in his 42-year political career, he’s often been offside with parties and their leaders.
He’s been a vocal opponent of neoliberalism and effective in opposition. Yet he’s been criticised for not doing enough while in power. He’s initiated inquiries into corruption, including the famous Winebox Affair which revealed the use of the Cook Islands as a tax haven by New Zealand companies. Yet he himself and his party have been subject to a couple of inquiries.
He’s media savvy, yet no fan of the media.
So I met Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs (as well as Racing), in the Ponsonby home of mutual friends. Lady Heeni Phillips-Williams and her late husband Sir Peter Williams QC had acted for Winston in the past.
I hoped the familiar surroundings might put the notoriously prickly politician in a good mood. Just in case, I asked him whether he played rugby with my uncle Jimmy. He had. Good. Then I wanted to find out why he’s still on the campaign trail after all these years . . .
Moana: You first entered parliament as a National candidate in 1978. What’s been the biggest change over that 42 years?
Winston: I suppose it’s the character of politics. There was a time when we used to admire people who had character, not because they were characters, but because they had real character. They stood up for things and they were prepared to go to the wire to defend their constituency or their principles.
A lot of that’s changed now and you have a lot of what I call “cloned members” who are indistinguishable from some of their colleagues. And it’s a lesser parliament as a consequence.
Also you’ve got a serious change in the media with the level of professionalism and reporting on politics. Whereas it used to be the crème de la crème, the top of the profession, who got into the parliamentary gallery, now you’ve got all sorts of people who are there. It has changed — and it has not changed for the better.
In 1975, you stopped a plan to establish public coastal land on ancestral land in the Ngāti Wai area, from Whangārei across to Whangaruru. What advice do you have for a new generation of Māori activists?
The then Labour government with the Whangārei District Council decided to take all the coastal land not owned by the rich, so to speak, from the Whangārei Heads all the way to Whangaruru.
It was a huge swathe of land for public utility purposes, a state takeover. And we decided to take them head-on with a Ngāti Wai land retention committee — 477 landowners including a number of European. And we put it to them real hard to get the best possible legal advice and a top class barrister to represent us.
It was an enormously expensive exercise, and I’m still waiting to be paid, I might add. I had a colleague, Ben Paki, and we got Judge Mick Brown to help.
So what is my advice? Don’t complain about things without knowing all the facts. Get your best argument together, and you might be surprised at the outcome.
And the second piece of advice is to ensure that you’ve got a commitment and belief behind you in your support group, because it’s lonely and difficult out there.
But it was a great victory and probably the biggest land case at that time.
Back in those early days, what did you learn about New Zealand corruption from the Winebox saga?
The worst thing that I learned was that, where in other countries — like, for example, the United States or the UK or Australia — if you made allegations about certain businesses, people would say: “This could be serious, let’s investigate it.”
But here, when I made those allegations back then, the establishment rushed to defend each other, regardless of the facts, regardless of whether it was true or not. And I found that absolutely shocking because we had no chance of going ahead as a country if we weren’t prepared to apply the law from the very highest to the very lowest.
Are business people able to manipulate politicians? Was that something that you understood from it?
You’d better believe it. I had the Labour Party, National Party, and everybody against me when I did that.
You have a better overview than most of the free-market experiment that others will describe as neoliberalism because you’ve had your eye on the game for more years than any other politician. What did New Zealand lose with that experiment?
It’s a great question. It’s 1984, the 14th of July, and the Labour Party has been campaigning with a certain manifesto. And the moment the election was over, they threw their manifesto in the rubbish bin — and used the most dramatic neoliberal experiment seen anywhere in the western world.
At the same time, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating had come to power in Australia, and they took the pathway of incremental change, building on the best and trying to change the worst things.
We had an upside-down revolution here, and they can defend themselves as long as they like, but Australia grew their GDP 38 percent larger than what we did.
Imagine if we were 38 percent larger than what we are now.
It was a terrible disaster, but I still see these people in parliament today trying to defend the indefensible. And the worst thing was that, when it started, the sharemarket was 74 percent New Zealand-owned. When it finished, it was 74 percent foreign-owned and a lot of assets had been sold as well.
We’re in this really challenging time with Covid and those free-market weaknesses will be coming to the fore. How do we deal with that?
They were already there before the Covid-19 disaster because of the global financial crisis, which was not a global financial crisis — it was a crisis of corruption in Wall Street. And by the time Covid-19 hit, we were still paying for it.
There was a lot wrong with New Zealand’s economy even before Covid-19 hit. I hope the lesson is now that we’ve learned that we’ve got a chance to reset and be smart. There’s no shortcut but we’ve got to work smart and in every area. And the most critical thing that I’m warning New Zealand about is, please, don’t think big government’s got the answer.
What’s the answer?
We can do so much more with our resources and so much more with our assets. But we should park our ideology at the back door, leave it there and get on with practical, common sense solutions for our economy. You can see all the arguments happening now over climate change.
National went to Paris and signed up to (the Paris Accord) and now they’re backtracking on it. What were they doing in Paris? They didn’t know what they were doing.
Whether you believe in climate change or not, international markets will determine what we have to do, because if they don’t think we’re pulling our weight, there goes our exports — and our exports is our only lifeblood.
You touched on the media earlier. You do have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the media. What’s that about?
The reason is that I don’t fit the script. As you well know, the ownership of the media is on the right and the workforce is on the left and I’m in the middle talking common sense and logic with a record of going to the wire on things I believe in. And I know the media don’t like it.
But when I say to them: “I’ve lost more money in court cases fighting for what I believe than all of you put together”, they don’t like it. It sounds like immodesty but it’s not.
I’ve done it because I think politics is a tremendous business. It has this awful feature that it can do more harm to people quicker than any profession I know, but it can also do more good for people with greater speed than any other profession.
My problem with journalists is their lack of understanding that words matter. For example, I had somebody put to me the other day that “the prime minister has said this about you”. I should have just stopped right there and said: “I’m not answering you until I see the prime minister’s words.”
The next day, when I saw the prime minister’s words, she’d said nothing of the sort. Now this happens over and over again. Journalism is, after all, the Fourth Estate — it’s one of the principal pillars of democracy and freedom and liberty. And if you don’t take it seriously, the outcome is pretty certain, and I see it in other countries.
So you believe that you’ve been misrepresented in the media?
Yes. I made a speech about the media last year saying how important their role was. But I also made a speech about them in 1988 saying I can see a disaster coming because your ownership is not giving quality, investigative journalists the space and room to do their job properly. They’re only concerned about the 10-second soundbite.
I’m just thinking back to October 2017, the night that you made your announcement about which party you were choosing to go with — the “kingmaker speech”. And we’re all sitting there wondering. And you threw out that little clue about the “neoliberal experiment” and then you had everybody in the palm of your hand. Did you enjoy that moment?
No. Because it’s the worst thing possible. You’re going to disappoint half your supporters no matter what you do and you’re going to be misrepresented no matter what you did. But I was facing nine years of the continuation of the neoliberal experiment.
And I thought about the hollowing out of our economy and all our social services, all the way to Foreign Affairs and Defence, all being underfunded, the superannuation scheme not being contributed to, and tax cuts being given to the wealthy. This was hopeless.
And I was looking at myself thinking: “Okay, Mr Key and Mr English. What have you done in the last nine years that is profoundly good for New Zealand?”
Now I didn’t have too many alternatives but we had a chance with hard negotiations to change that pathway, and change that pathway we have.
The Provincial Growth Fund has been a massive fillip for the provinces and the regions of this country. A billion trees is our statement about climate change. This is real, not talk.
When you first went into parliament as a National MP in the 1978 election, there were high hopes for you. There was talk that you were going to be the first Māori prime minister. Did that put a lot of pressure on you?
Well, two things. It made me a whole lot of enemies the moment (then prime minister, Robert) Muldoon said that. I was almost condemned to making enemies in the National Party. That’s the way it is in politics.
The second thing is that it’s tokenism and paternalism to talk about the first Māori prime minister, or the first anything.
And the third thing is, if I’d have been prepared to sell my principles down the drain, I could have been there long ago.
I can remember when 32 or 38 MPs walked into my room wanting me to lead a charge, sounding me out about whether I’d do this. And I’m facing Rogernomics and saying: “This is a disaster” — and they thought it was a good idea. I was never going to sell myself out to be their leader because I knew that I wasn’t going to be their leader. I’d be their servant.
So you’re saying the National Party left you, as opposed to you leaving the National Party? The party changed?
Well, it was like Mr Churchill said: Some people change their principles to suit their party. I changed my party, and I started a new one to suit my principles. And I’m proud of it.
Who owns the water?
God owns the water and it’s a blessing for all of us. Old Māori believe that as well. It’s a blessing from God, as is the foreshore and seabed.
On that note, Justice Joe Williams has begun a discussion about tikanga and the law. Does that excite or disturb you?
He’s talking about tikanga and L-O-R-E. I’m talking about the law. L-A-W.
Do you see them as totally disparate?
I see that we can be wandering off on all sorts of pathways at enormous cost to some Māori in Tokoroa or Moerewa or on the East Coast — because the last person who’s going to get any value from those sorts of thoughts are the people at the bottom.
What a load of rubbish.
Hang on. Do you want to hear my views or do you want me to challenge yours?
You know what Māori want? A decent affordable home at maybe maximum 33 percent of their weekly wage to pay the rates, mortgage and insurance. The second thing they want is a decent health system should they or their parents or their children fall sick. The third thing they want is to get on an escalator to progress. That’s called education. (Apirana) Ngata got a law degree in two years flat, that’s a New Zealand record. The fourth thing they want is a job with a first-world wage.
Those four things are what they want, and they’re not getting it. I’m going to keep my mind on that prize and not be deviated.
Many Māori are saying that they can succeed if they’re given the resources and the power to champion their own strategies and look after themselves. That they will do a better job than the same-old, same-old.
They got any evidence of that? I mean, I happened to have studied the history of one of the persons I admire most in New Zealand politics — Ngata.
I’ve seen other great leaders in Māoridom who understand what I call the chiefly responsibility. That it’s the people first, and it’s the mission and the dream downstream for the grandchildren and yet unborn that he or she is planning for.
I’ve seen that sort of leadership in Māoridom, and then I’ve seen the other kind where the end of their political gospel is wealth for themselves, but not the people down the bottom. Why do you think I argued for the biggest wage rise we’ve ever had in 2005, 2008, from 9 to 12 percent for the minimum wage?
I’m back doing it again. It’s not Labour that’s argued for the wage increase. It’s me and New Zealand First. And alongside that, I’ve also argued for a business and tax package for business so they can pay decent wages.
You know that the total amount that’s being paid back to Māori in commercial and financial redress in the Treaty settlements processes is around $2.2 billion. And that’s crumbs compared to the loss that was quantified.
And yet some of these iwi have been able to build themselves up into machinery that can deliver on a number of strategies and that can uplift their people in education and health. You wouldn’t have any issue with that, surely?
Well, if you’re going to break down the Waitangi settlement issue on the basis of an argument about compensation, you are 100 percent right.
But look at the industry that’s meant to be supporting Māori and at how many billions have gone into that and how little progress we’ve made.
You’re not blaming it on Māori are you?
No, I’m saying that you’ve got all those radicalised Māori and a whole lot of what I call “woke” fellow travellers who have got this answer for Māoridom. It’s so tokenistic, so paternalistic. The only people who can change our destiny is ourselves.
Recently in Orewa, you made a speech and I’m just going to ask you whether it was reported accurately?
No, because the trouble is they don’t understand that words matter.
Did you say something about “the Treaty industry and separatism”?
Yeah, I did say that, and it is an industry. I know what it’s like to go into the court for Māori where the last thing on my mind, as I said to you, was getting paid. Winning is the important thing.
And I see a whole lot of lawyers, many European, of course, even though all firms have got a Māori issues division, all making so much money off this. But the Māori in Tokoroa or Murupara or whatever around the country . . . what are they getting out of this battle?
Why do you guys keep putting the boot into Pania Newton? I mean, isn’t that a bit below you? You’re a statesman and she’s a young woman, a young activist.
It’s not below me to remind you that, in the history of Māoridom down through the centuries, the people that you listened to were the people who had kept the land warm. I saw those elders stomped over by the media and Pania Newton. And you expect me to keep my mouth shut? That’s not the way it is in the Māori world, surely?
Who are you appealing to when you’re talking about “one law for all”?
I’m appealing to the long-term interest of Māori in this country because I’ve seen Māori do so well in so many areas. And I keep on hearing this.
So, Māori seats. You stood for a Māori electorate way back in the day. And then, in the 1996 election, you took them all out with your “Tight Five” who, unfortunately, weren’t as tight as you probably hoped, eh? And you’re the last man standing. It must have been disappointing when that crumbled?
It was bitterly disappointing. I had campaigned on the need for great change. A revival of Ka Awatea — which was that we’d reach into our own selves and we’d turn this future around from the strands of people like Ngata and the Māori Women’s Welfare League and other great movements.
And what we had was people who thought they’d won the seat by themselves. We offered actual sweat and tears to turn Māoridom around and they didn’t understand the sacrifice that does it — it’s not about pleasure and enjoyment and all the other things. It was a major disappointment.
But at the same time, we were in our first election for MMP. And the Royal Commission that established MMP after the referendum said that, in time, MMP would prove that there was no need for the Māori seats.
And now we’ve got 28 percent of the parliament with Māori in them. So why do we need the Māori seats when we’ve got all these Māori, or people with Māori in them, in parliament today? When I first came, there were only four.
Because those seats are dedicated to Māori interests, to Māori in their electorate.
And I’m not? Excuse me.
Would you characterise New Zealand First as a Māori party?
No. Sir Rob Muldoon once asked General Poananga, the commander of our forces in this country: How many Māori have you got in the army? You know what Poananga said to him? Mr Prime Minister, we only have soldiers in this army.
And when you ask me whether I’m in parliament as a Māori? No, I’m a New Zealander lucky enough to have Māori in my background.
Do you get slammed by Māori for some of the remarks you make about “one law”, or getting rid of the Māori seats?
Well, of course, because they come from a position of weakness. Remember, when I came to parliament there were only four Māori in parliament, and they were in the Māori seats. That’s it. And now there’s seven Māori seats. And you’ve got 28 percent of parliament, because of MMP, with Māori in their background.
Some of them, though, aren’t advocates for Māori.
Well, why choose them then?
Well, because they went as the electorate member for Tauranga. I’m talking about your successor, for example.
Excuse me. Only four people in over 100 and so many years had ever entered through the European seats from the background we come from. James Carroll first, then Ben Couch, Rex Austin in ’75, and me in ‘78. That’s four in 120 years.
So please don’t tell me that I don’t know something about the difficulty of this pathway. Since that time, there have been more Māori people in general seats. But to say: “Oh, but you’re not Māori enough because you’re not in a Māori seat”, is a cop out.
That’s not what I said.
What financial sacrifice personally have they ever been prepared to make for their beliefs, these people in the Māori seats who you say are more Māori than me?
You’ve just twisted that around.
No, I haven’t.
Yes, you have.
I’ve given you logic in the face of speculation.
I don’t know what you’ve given me.
No, but the viewers will decide that.
Every one of us has whakapapa Māori but some are advocates for Māori. That’s different from some people who just have whakapapa Māori.
Well, I’m not disputing that. But I’m giving you my version of it, which is that, the idea that someone in a general seat with Māori in their background is not as solid an advocate in the interest of Māori as someone in the Māori seat, is hogwash.
I’m not saying that.
I can tell you of past members of parliament in the Māori seats who made one speech a year.
I’m sorry, don’t hmmm me. I am going on my practical experience, that this is a business where you’ve got to work sometimes 18, 20 hours a day and seven days a week to ensure you advance the cause you’re talking about. I and some of my colleagues do know what this is like and it ain’t been easy.
Why do you think Māori are disproportionately represented across all negative statistics?
Well, you’re wrong about all negative statistics.
Most imprisoned, the most ill . . .
They are in some of the negative. But there are positive statistics where Māori are over represented as well in terms of charitable mucking-in on the marae setting, cultural achievement, the joy of music, those sorts of contributions. No one’s measuring those sorts of things. Sure, there’s a downside.
Yeah. So the downside is because . . .
One of the reasons why is because there are certain fundamentals that are required when people are young. There’s training and education. How come for most Māori in prison, their first offence was driving without a licence? That’s why getting prisoners a licence is so important. Or better still, make sure the education system prepares them for getting a licence in the first place.
We, with the Provincial Growth Fund and with the Howard League — and you can all laugh at Shane Jones and me and everybody else — we have trained now, out of the prisons, over 3,000 mainly Māori to get a driver’s licence when the whole education system let them down.
Māori were falling through the cracks all the way at primary and secondary school level. I’ve never seen a teachers’ protest march down Queen Street about the lack of Māori achievement in primary or secondary school. I’ve seen them marching for conditions and I’ve seen them marching for salary but never saw them marching for that. That’s why I’ve kept my eye on the prize, and so have my colleagues.
Immigration. The Māori Party just got slammed for announcing an immigration policy that might sound similar to yours. It’s a very sensitive topic and immigration itself is not discussed in a really deep way among New Zealanders. It’s quite inflammatory and the accusation is that you’ve contributed to the inflammatory nature of that as an issue.
I love the way you put that. You said it’s never been discussed. Of course it’s never been discussed. All the arrogant leaders of this country in high areas and, dare I say, universities, have all these opinions about immigration but they never ask an ordinary New Zealander.
In the end, the ordinary New Zealander is going to be the master of this decision. On election day, they’ll be the queen and king in the polling booth, they’ll decide this issue. And we’ve got a chance to reset our immigration, to be really meaningful for New Zealand.
Can you just describe for me . . .
Look, we’ve got a massive disconnect between the demand for housing and healthcare and education and all these things, and supply. Who is it at the end of this huge disconnect? Māori.
But let me remind you that Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, in attacking me on my immigration policy, said Winston Peters is utterly wrong and we should be going to the airport and giving them a pōwhiri.
Yeah, a pōwhiri to bring in so much more competition for Māori jobs, Māori housing and Māori opportunity. I know who’s made the right stand here. And the Māori Party might be a bit late to the block, but they’re now just pure imitation.
In terms of housing and just the numbers game, do you think that it’s been unhelpful for Shane Jones and other people to target various ethnic groups? That it’s been distracting from the guts of the issue that needs to be discussed?
No, no. We’ve never had a discussion in this country about population, and the people of this country are the ones who should decide what our population policy should be. Not some politician or some bureaucrat being paid for by the taxpayer.
Why can’t we ask the people what they want because other countries do that?
And when I go all around Asia and state my immigration policy, they utterly understand. They can’t understand yours. They can’t understand National, Labour, bringing in 72,500 people net a year while Māori and Europeans in this country are starving for housing and all sorts of opportunity.
The Covid-19 blessing, if there is one, is we’ve got a chance to reset our immigration policy in our national interest, just like they do everywhere else.
When you explain it like that and you just stick to the numbers, that’s all good. But . . .
It’s always been good. It’s the misrepresentation of what I’ve said that’s been bad. I’ve had people say Winston Peters is anti-Asian, he’s anti-this. I go all around Asia and I can’t find one politician that disagrees with my immigration policy, so who’s anti here?
If we are to believe some media, Judith Collins has been rarking up Act to try and take New Zealand First out.
That’s just Judith’s lovely side.
And you’ve been reported as criticising the government that you’ve been a part of over Covid stuff and whatever.
We’re in a campaign now. Do you want us to go to the campaign all the way to the 17th of October agreeing on everything?
But it’s your job to frame the political debate. Everybody out there wants to know how they’re going to vote. They want to know what the issues are, they want to know what the party stands for. You’re demanding I keep my mouth shut so everybody thinks I’m Labour.
I never said “keep your mouth shut”.
Sounds like it.
Oh, my goodness, you’re getting all touchy now.
No, no, no. That’s the corollary. You said I’ve disagreed with the Labour Party. Yes, I have. I disagreed from the word go. I said get the army involved otherwise you’re going to have a breakout, use masks.
And then you’re slamming National and saying you’d never go with them.
No, I didn’t say that. They said they wouldn’t go with me. I can’t believe that, after all this time, you’re blaming me. They’re the ones who said that, first of all under Bridges, then under Muller. They’ve had four leaders in the last three years. And then under the last one, under Collins, the same thing where we are concerned.
And I’ve said: “Oh yes, I know you. You’ll be the first on the phone after election day.”
Do you think people still don’t understand how MMP works?
No, they don’t, sad to say. It’s not their fault. It’s because the media have never ever agreed with MMP. The media loved first past the post. It shows now. There are leaders debates where we are shut out — where the most experienced politician in this country and a former treasurer, I’m shut out of the debate. I’m not in the economic debate. I’m not in anything. You see what I mean? This is malignantly not fair.
What big gain did New Zealand First deliver in this last term?
$11 billion of needed expenditure, from a billion trees to reviving Kiwi Rail.
$3 billion for essential investment in infrastructure all around this country. One of them, for example, is building the biggest mussel farm in the whole world in a neglected place called Ōpōtiki. We’re doing it in the Coromandel. We’re doing it at the top of the Marlborough Sounds. And I’ve had the prime minister and every Labour minister elbowing us aside to be at every opening we’ve ever had.
And all of a sudden they don’t want me any longer.
New Zealand First has done a tremendous job. You can’t say that this guy’s got far too much power and then say he hasn’t been influential. I’m proud of what we’ve done because we’ve changed the direction of this country.
Not Labour’s way or not National’s way, but in a way to suit the massive wealth creation area of this country — the regions and the provinces. We’ve got essential industries out in rural New Zealand and they’re going to bring us home to be a more wealthy country.
This is another election and you’ve been in it for a while. I’m not being disrespectful, honestly, but don’t you just think: “You can all just bugger off. I’m over it”? What keeps you up at night? What keeps you involved?
Well, if you think that way, get another job. Don’t stay. No matter what the job is. If you’re not getting a thrill out of the challenges of it, get another job.
What do you love most about this political life that you’ve led? What is the part you’ve enjoyed the most?
I see older people every day who stop and say thank you for that Gold Card. Thank you for the fact there’s no surcharge tax on old people’s savings. Thank you for getting the superannuation income back to 66 percent. And thank you for the fact I’ll get a free doctor’s visit and a free eye check and 7,000 of us won’t go blind.
Or, my son has just been to see a doctor and it’s free. Or I’m a primary school teacher and I get the same pay as a secondary school teacher.
I can give you a list as long as my arm about why this job was worthwhile. And why we still have unfinished business.
What’s it been like working with Jacinda Ardern?
In the main, it’s been seriously good. It’s been constructive. I think that one of the problems is that some members of the team forgot that it’s a coalition. And it took them about a year and a half to think: “Oh, we’re not doing this all by ourselves.” But I can remember them in the days before we even decided and I wish that they had kept that view — that we needed to be a coalition from the start to the finish.
When you put up the sign that says “I’ve gone fishing”, what do you want people to remember you by in terms of your political legacy?
I don’t. As a lawyer, legacy is what you do in your will. All these politicians talking about their legacy is really laughable because they have no legacy. Can I ask you: What is John Key’s legacy? I could go down Queen Street right now and go through Remuera or Parnell and ask that question and no one will be able to tell me what his legacy is. So let’s get rid of that.
I want to be the best person in a government that I could possibly be. In terms of foreign affairs, to re-establish this country’s sense of dignity and standing. And I’ve done that. I’m proud of that. But also, within the Pacific, to give them the concentration and the resources to be an important part of our future, because our security and safety long-term is dependent upon that.
We’ve made a dramatic change offshore, but nobody votes on foreign affairs except in South Auckland. And it’s important for us not to walk out on our neighbours now. We will need them one day as much as they need us.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A shorter version was broadcast on Te Ao with Moana on Māori Television last month.)
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