Saturday, May 27, 2006

COMMENT: Looking Back Liberally

During a recent spring clean, I happened to stumble across the Summer 2001 edition of Liberally Speaking, the NSW Liberal Party newsletter.

The focus of the issue was on the 2001 election result, in which the Coalition secured a majority of at least 10 seats over all other parties and independents.

On page 3 was a list of all seats and the swings involved. Les Osmond in Blaxland scored a phenomenal 6.5% swing on a 2-party preferred basis. Mind swings were posted against Bronwyn Bishop and Brendan Nelson.

Yet what really interested me was the photo album in the centre pages. Here were a range of persons I remember regularly ripping each other to pieces during state council meetings and at internal party ballots.

From the left were John Ryan, Phil Ruddock, Chris McDiven, Patricia Forsythe, Bob Baldwin, Peter King and Helen Coonan. From the right were Tony Abbott, David Doust, John Howard and Rachel Merton.

Ben Franklin and the NSW Young Libs ran the flying squad whose job it was to be available on short notice to assist any campaign or candidate in need of assistance. The Young Libs were exciting and a genuinely fun crowd, prepared to help even if they didn’t agree with you.

The ALP could rely on union hacks to campaign for their struggling candidates on short notice. We never had union backing. But we always had the Young Libs.

I remember running for Reid and receiving a call from Senator Marise Payne’s office the night before offering access to the flying squad. Looking back, I wish I had taken them up on their offer. My swing could have been higher.

Why do I mention all this? Because the newsletter took me back to a time when the Young Libs were a campaigning force. Whether you were wet or dry, you could rely on the Young Lib wets to help.

Today, the Young Lib dries will only help you if you belong to the right faction or because you attend church. The takeover of the Young Libs by the Religious Right (RR) has taken away that cutting edge campaigning that the NSW Young Libs were always famous for.

The refusal of Alex Hawke’s Young Libs to support John Brogden’s campaign is ample evidence that they are not unconditional about their support for the Party. Ben Franklin didn’t agree with Ross Cameron on a lot of things. But Ben Franklin was happy to lead the flying squad to help Cameron keep his seat. Alex Hawke, on the other hand, wasn’t keen for John Brogden to become Premier of NSW.

Back in the mid-1990’s, I never had much time for the small “l” liberals (even if I probably agreed with them on most things). But one thing I will always give them credit for. They were enthusiastic and vibrant. And they were basically nice people. They tended to value friendships and relationships more than people on our side.

And now we see the divisive politics of the RR pushing even their natural allies away. When the Religious Right are even prepared to roll devout Christians like Wayne Merton, it is time to start worrying and acting.

If Peter Debnam is to have any hope of becoming Premier, he really has no option but to stop appeasing the RR. He has done the right thing by standing by sitting MP’s subject to RR challenge. What he also needs to do is reign in the rhetoric of RR activists who use all kinds of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric on e-mail groups (and in anonymous posts on this blog) and who sprout this nonsense to journalists.

The people of NSW need to have a choice between the ALP and the Coalition. They don’t want to be faced with a choice between the ALP and the Christian Democrats. If concerned Liberal Party members don’t watch out, they might their party becoming unelectable. In which case, even 10 of Ben Franklin’s flying squads won’t be able to help.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

OPINION: Kiwis, stay on your side of the ditch!

Remember that slapstick comedy Top Secret? Set during the Cold War, the film manages to incorporate the World War II French underground rescuing a scientist detained by East German communists before he completes his giant magnet designed to capture Nato submarines.

Perhaps the only rational sentence in the entire movie is where the scientist's daughter ponders her future on the other side of the Iron Curtain with her Yankee popstar lover. She thinks aloud: “Things change. People change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate.”

Which I guess provides a simple lesson to any Kiwis contemplating leaving their North and South Island havens for the apparent prosperity of that huge West Island (presuming none of you intend gold-digging in Tasmania).

It's true that Aussie Treasurer Peter Costello's most recent budget delivered bigger tax cuts than Dr Cullen's latest offering. But before packing your passports, remember that better lifestyle and more prosperity aren't just determined by the size of this year's tax cut.

Australians pay less tax. We also pay more in living expenses. Imagine buying your first Sydney home in a passable suburb at an average price of $750,000. Imagine then paying stamp duty (say, $20,000), not to mention legal fees. Then there are state taxes, rates and a host of other hidden taxes.

Then imagine home loan interest rates going up by 1 per cent over two years while house prices tumble. Before you know it, you'll be strolling on to Cronulla beach in a bikini holding a pinned-up Peter Costello voodoo doll and screaming: “Where the bloody hell's my bloody tax cut?!”

Despite my conservative leanings, I find Dr Brash's rosy-coloured view of Australian tax cuts overly simplistic. And I reckon talented and successful Aussies (like the brothers Finn and Russell Crowe) also share my assessment.

But these talented (and therefore) alleged Aussies are the type who make money anywhere. Ordinary punters like us are affected by economic, social and political trends which don't stop just because of income tax cuts.

Some weeks back, I found myself with 600 other guests in Sydney's Four Seasons Hotel celebrating the 30th anniversary bash of the not-exactly-Bolshie Centre for Independent Studies.

The CIS has a knack of making miniature government capitalism sound better than sex. During the mid-1990s I attended a CIS weekend capitalist student junket. Back then, they were telling us young men to go east and enjoy the fruits of Roger Douglas' experiments.

Of course, now they are recommending you move west. Who knows what they'll be saying in a decade.

Even if Aussies pay lower tax than Kiwis, is that good enough reason to move to Bondi or Byron Bay? If tax is so crucial, why aren't the Packers (or indeed the Finns) moving to Monaco?

And who says life will remain less taxing in Australia? Right now, the conservative, Liberal-led Government might seem as invincible as they were back in 2001 when even I was prepared to run as Liberal candidate for a metropolitan Sydney seat.

But Australia's real leader - Sheik Rupert Murdoch - has just issued a fatwa for John Howard to retire before Santa arrives. Which means at least three federal ministers and a parliamentary secretary could jockey for the top job. As Dr Brash knows all too well, conservatives sure know how to cut each other's (and therefore their own collective) throats. And an alternative Oz-Labor government might discover the joys of overtaxing.

There are less economically rationalist (but no less rational) reasons for Kiwis to stay where they are. I reckon even conservative Kiwis wouldn't want Cronulla-style riots in Auckland or Christchurch. And I doubt a Kiwi government would rush to support the rioters' sentiments in a hurry.

A nation's long-term prosperity is built on social cohesion. I'll call it the Waitangi factor. I'd rather be a Maori in Auckland than an Aboriginal Aussie in Redfern. In today's Australia, politicians, columnists and talk-back hosts can say things about Aborigines or refugees that would be political suicide across the Tasman.

Thankfully, you don't see Helen Clark offering Kiwi troops to Iraq while Kiwi wheat boards pay kickbacks to Saddam Hussein.

You don't have a national paper that is American-owned and reads like Fox News. Your foreign policy doesn't put Auckland at the top of Osama bin Laden's target list. And your worst race relations are only seen on episodes of bro'Town.

All of which makes life in Kiwistan much less taxing in the long run.

* The author is a Sydney lawyer and former Liberal Party of Australia candidate. First published in the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday 23 March 2006.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Vale John Marsden, lawyer & libertarian

Some 14 centuries ago, an Arab man regarded by millions as a Prophet of God sat amongst his followers. A funeral procession passed, the mourners having completed the service at the synagogue. Immediately upon seeing them, the Arab gentleman stood up and remained standing until they were out of view.

“Why do you stand up, Prophet of God? This man did not believe in your prophethood,” said one of the followers.

“I am standing to honour a humbled human soul about to meet its Creator,” responded the man to his followers.

For myself and for lawyers across Australia, now is an opportune time to stand up for deceased colleague. Whether we agreed or disagreed with his views on legal and social issues, we honour John Marsden as a humbled human soul who made a mark on the legal community and the broader Australian community.

I can't claim to have known Mr Marsden all that well. I only met him on a few occasions. One such occasion was during a job interview in 1997 at his home in Denham Court on the outskirts of Sydney. It was a Saturday morning, and I was running late.

I rang the doorbell. I was nervous, holding my resume and wearing a freshly pressed suit and polished shoes. Mr Marsden opened the door and presented himself, barefoot and clothed in shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Prozac Nation”. He greeted me with: “G’day, mate. Got lost, did yah?”

Mr Marsden led me to his large dining table covered with files and papers. I couldn’t help but note a large number of legal aid forms. Mr Marsden followed my gaze, and observed: “Mate, haven’t you ever done legal aid work? That’s where the real law is practised.”

John Marsden graduated in law from Sydney University in 1966. He immediately started his own legal practice in Campbelltown, on the outskirts of south western Sydney.

Marsden’s involvement in public life has been extensive. He served as President of the NSW Law Society and as both NSW and National Presidents of the Council for Civil Liberties. He has served on numerous other social, sporting and government boards, devoting time to issues as wide-ranging as school and higher education, the arts, rugby league, swimming, drug rehabilitation, HIV discrimination and policing.

Marsden also fought Australia’s longest running defamation trial. His openness about his sexuality was seen by many as the basis for accusations of unlawful sexual behaviour being aired on the Seven Network. The litigation took a toll on both Marsden’s finances and his health.

To mark his passing, the Sydney Morning Herald website recently posted a small gallery of photographs of Mr Marsden. The photograph I found most troubling was one showing a visibly disturbed Marsden sitting in the front passenger seat of his car staring outside a broken window. His driver had just informed him that the window had been smashed by a person screaming ‘pedophile’.

Marsden’s face reminded me of the faces of leaders of mosques, Arab churches and Sikh temples coming to terms with broken windows and graffiti evidencing hatred and venom poured on them in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The targets of prejudice may vary, but the sentiment is the same.

We know that to suggest all gay men are pedophile is absurd. As is suggesting all Muslims, Arabs and Middle Easterners (and those whose appearance resembles them) are terrorists. Yet both prejudices are common and active in the broader community. John Marsden’s face staring out of his broken window reinforced in my mind how troubling it can be to suffer vilification and violence for being deemed a criminal because of one’s public embrace of certain lifestyle choices.

Marsden’s clientele came from all classes and sectors of society, from the homeless to major insurers and financial institutions. He rarely refused legal aid work which many lawyers dismissed as being too much trouble for too little money. He was known to be a passionate defender of human rights and believed the law was designed to protect the rights of each individual, whether a convicted Sydney murderer or a deposed Iraqi dictator.

In 1994, Marsden was the recipient of an A.M. in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to Law and the Community. He had friends in places high and low across the community. Among his former business partners is former NSW Liberal Premier and former Finance Minister in the Howard Government, John Fahey. Yet Marsden’s contacts and involvements transcended the political divide.

John Marsden is a household name in legal and political circles and across the broader community. Even his enemies and critics dare not discount the contribution he made to public life.

Marsden’s many public stands provided hope to a host of otherwise marginalised Australians. Marsden fought prejudice in all its forms. He was a true libertarian who believed a lawyer’s primary professional responsibility was to defend the individual against the excesses and intricacies of law enforcement, government and bureaucracy.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Real Conservatism or Yankee-Centric Myopia?

When the Planet Irf blog was first conceived back in 2002, I envisaged that it might represent a return to sensible and cautious small-“c” conservative politics. Over time, the blog has been sidetracked by other national and international issues. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit some of its original theme.

In this sense, many of the old small-“c” conservatives driven out of the NSW Liberal Party by the neo-Con-inspired Religious Right continue to maintain a healthy disrespect for the neo-Cons. But what is the alternative to neo-Conservatism? And do the alternatives really have the answer?

The US is home to two broad conservative traditions. The dominant strand (at least when it comes to wielding real power in Washington) are often known as the neo-Conservatives. The other are a broad group of anti-neo-Cons who claim to be truer to the old Reagan conservatism,.

In this second group are Patrick Buchanan, a former presidential candidate and editor of an interesting publication called The American Conservative.

You can visit the website of the magazine and download a sample copy. The one I downloaded was dated November 3 2003, with a cover story “The New Iran – Khomeini is Dead”.

The magazine makes interesting reading because it shows that American anti-neo-Con politics is not necessarily a bastion of sensible policy either. Patrick Buchanan’s editorial in the magazine is little more than an anti-free market, anti-immigration rant one would expect from certain sectors of the old DLP.

Buchanan’s views on immigration are particularly unsavoury. He talks about a “Third World invasion of America”, claiming that “mass immigration is bankrupting California”. The result is an alleged mass emigration by Californians to other states.

Buchanan’s anti-UN prejudice can be seen in his claims that mass immigration has led to a “radical transformation of America into a giant replica of the UN General Assembly”.

And what does it have in common with the UN? Are UN delegates a group of impoverished Latin Americans looking for work and housing and social security? Or is it just that the UN General Assembly has too many non-Whites?

With this sort of logic (or lack thereof), Buchanan would make an excellent addition to the NSW Young Liberal executive. He certainly has enough resentment toward migrants (unless they are conservative Christians able to stack branches).

But in case you thought Buchanan was just plain weird, think again. Heck, we all have the right to our idiosyncrasies.

Buchanan is an entertaining polemicist. He enjoys using colourful language to make his point. His goal is to generate a response. Which makes him an ideal op-ed writer.

(He certainly generated a response from me in the paragraphs above!)

Buchanan believes that GW Bush has abandoned genuine conservatism for “the Hong Kong values of the Wall Street Journal”. These values include “free trade globalism, open-borders immigration and Wilsonian interventionism.”

Buchanan sees free trade as the root of all industrial evils. He argues that the huge trade deficits the US runs with Canada, Mexico, Japan, China and the EU are “the returns from 10 years of free trade”. GW Bush’s term in office (at least upto 2003) has seen one in six American manufacturing jobs vanish.

Buchanan then commences an all-out assault on the failed US intervention into Iraq in the name of “Regime Change”. He gives “the counterfeit conservatism of the Wall Street Journal” particular short shrift, arguing they have always wanted war with Iraq and just about everyone else in the Middle East (except Israel, of course).

So why does the WSJ engage in such warmongering? Why do conservatives not realise that “the Wall Street Journal is to true conservatism what Eisner is to Disney, a cow bird that flew in to sit on the nest another bird built”?

Buchanan believes that the WSJ has a distinctly internationalist agenda, and wants to see “[w]orld money, with a world central bank”. And who would rule the roost over this international political and economic order? Why none else than the nation that seems to owe everyone else lots and lost of money of course!

I can’t help but think that old-style American conservatism suffers from a certain myopia. All the good sense and logic in foreign affairs is underpinned by a Yankee-centric view of the world. Yes, it is true that it is stupid for any man to go raiding other people’s homes when the beds in his own home are burning or sinking or even drowning. But rejection of all that is foreign doesn’t seem very sensible either.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Saturday, May 13, 2006

More Musings on Citizenship

Recently I wrote about a seminar I have been invited to participate in, organised by the NSW Chapter of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia. The seminar (it has been labelled a “conversation”) will be held on Wednesday 21 June 2006 at the Dixson Room at the NSW State Library in Macquarie Street Sydney.

The title of the seminar is “Moral Responsibility: Citizenship”. The moderator will be MLC Henry Tsang, and the other panel member will be Dr Helen Irving.

I’ve been given some further information about the seminar by the organisers. They are stressing the “conversational aspect” of the evening, which will focus on discussion between members of the audience and the speakers. Dr Irving and I will speak for no more than 15 minutes, introducing our position on the subject.

For 30 minutes thereafter, the moderator will engage Dr Irving and I in a discussion aimed at encouraging dialogue between us and assisting us to develop our unique positions. The floor will then be opened for members of the audience. This should take up around 45 minutes of time, around 50% of the time allocated to the entire session.

The organisers have told me something of Dr Irving’s position on this issue. Helen is critical of the “moral” or normative use of the term ‘citizen’. She regards such an approach as turning citizenship into a term of exclusion. Such an approach actually goes against the normative goals universally attached to citizenship.

Dr Irving’s last presentation on the issue was at the Ottowa University in Canada before Christmas, where she assessed the UK proposal to strip citizens of their citizenship should they express sympathy for terrorism.

So what is my position? Well, I still haven’t quite figured out how mu position should be different to Helen’s. I guess I regard citizenship as something I have always had. I’ve always been an Australian citizen and have never held citizenship of any other country.

For me, citizenship represents satisfaction of the bear minimum requirements for being an Australian. I cannot see how the current environment of security and terrorism should change this. The fact is that whether a person is born in Australia or overseas, they deserve the same rights and have the same responsibilities.

I also think defining citizenship in cultural terms to be very problematic. Especially when such an added requirement is being enforced by representatives of a 200-year old culture who have a historical record of showing little respect to a 20,000 year old indigenous culture.

Recently I attended the budget night dinner at Parliament House in Canberra. I thought I would shock a middle-aged Liberal Party supporter by telling her that a real Aussie cultural conservative would be dressed in a loin cloth, carrying a didgeridoo and going walkabout every now and then. She was most shocked, notwithstanding her consuming at least 3 glasses of white wine.

The woman went onto tell me: “You know, if it wasn’t for us, those people wouldn’t have telephones”. She also began to lecture one of my clients (an American of Shia Muslim background) that his culture didn’t belong in Australia.

The UK proposal may be regarded as ill-conceived, but it would carry plenty of weight in the world of tabloids and shock jocks. The challenge is to convince this world that citizenship is a kind of social DNA which sticks to you once you have been granted it.

I will have to examine Andrew Robb’s recent address to the Sydney Institute on the topic before making my mind up about this issue. If Mr Robb’s speech is anything like Mr Costello’s reflection on sharia, I don’t expect to be enlightened very much.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Friday, May 05, 2006

Thoughts on Cardinal Pell

I first met Cardinal Pell in Sydney speak some years . He was delivering the annuial Acton Lecture under the auspices of the Centre for Independent Studies. At the time, he was a ‘humble’ Archbishop.

I was impressed by what he said. I thought I would ask him a question about the topic of religious fundamentalism. I thought he answered it quite well, making sure he understood and pondered on my question before responding to it.

So in responding to Cardinal Pell’s recent remarks about Islam, I should definitely show him the same courtesy. I should first read what the man himself has said, ponder over his words and then make up my own mind.

Here are some initial thoughts.

Pell is not an elected official with the benefit of taxpayer-funded staffers and spin-doctors to research for and assist him. If an official I elect uses my tax dollars to vilify my or anyone else’s religious symbols, I would be grossly pissed off.

If I was an elected official I wouldn’t go around attacking some Greek Orthodox women for wearing black veils or some Jewish men for wearing caps. Governments (especially those claiming to be liberal) have no business lecturing people on how they should dress or what religious symbols they should honour.

Pell isn’t an elected official. He is an official of a religious faith which, like Islam, is a missionary faith that actively seeks out converts. Missionary faiths believe they have the truth, and are unselfish enough to share it with people.

Pell has expressed some views. He has also been kind enough to tell us where he got these views from. The first thing I glanced over when a journo sent me the speech was the references.

Cardinal Pell makes heavy use of Daniel Pipes. I don’t have loads of time for Dr Pipes, whom I regard as little more than a propagandist for some of the ugliest sides of Israeli and American politics. Pipes was recently criticised by an Israeli commentator for criticising Israelis for not electing a government determined to eliminate Palestinians.

Pipes’ work reminds me of the work of German propagandists during the 1930’s and 40’s. What they wrote about Jews is what he writes about Muslims.

Pipes masquerades as an expert on modern politicised Islam. He makes much of his Harvard PhD and the ability to speak, read and write Arabic. Which all sounds very impressive except that his PhD is in medieval European history, not modern Middle Eastern or Asian politics.

Further, the most influential writers and ideologues of “Islamism” (as he likes to call it) did not write in Arabic but rather in Urdu and Farsi (languages over which he cannot even legitimately claim even the most rudimentary command.

Pell also makes use of Paul Stenhouse. I have only read one piece by Dr Stenhouse which appeared in a recent issue of Quadrant. Suffice it to say that Stenhouse somehow found it possible to cover the entire spectrum of Muslim political thought by citing not more than 3 or 4 Muslim writers. A bit like me summarising government policy by citing the words of 3 or 4 dog whistlers.

I would like to think Cardinal Pell doesn’t take the works of these writers for granted and casts a critical eye over their conclusions. Cardinal Pell has a formidable intellect and is a man of principle. Amongst his many involvements, Cardinal Pell joined yours truly and over 80 other men from across Australia as a male ambassador for UNIFEM’s White Ribbon Day.

This article is getting way too long. It’s time for me to actually read the speech and make up my mind about it. I urge anyone else interested to do the same. You can find it here.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

PROFILE: An Aussie Cambodian Mum

Recently I joined around 100 other members of the Catalyst Network Limited, an initiative of young Sydney-based professionals and business people from both sides of the Tasman. They help raise awareness as well as money for a variety of charities.

On Wednesday evening 3 May, we gathered to listen to an Australian woman who chooses to make a difference to the lives of hundreds of young people.

Geraldine Cox manages the Sunrise Children’s Village in Cambodia, a project supported by the Australia-Cambodia Foundation. Geraldine shared with us something of her life as well as the lives of young Cambodians she has been able to support.

Cambodia is a tragic place which seems to attract four classes of people we may refer to as the four M’s – missionaries, mercenaries, misfits and masochists. Geraldine describes herself as a misfit. She is the daughter of a South Australian milkman who worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Asia, the Middle East and the United States for many years.

Geraldine’s first posting in Asia was in Cambodia during the early 1970’s, just when the Vietnam conflict had crossed the border. She was 25 years old at the time, and spent 2 years in the country before moving to her next posting.

Geraldine spent 3 years in Iran where she met and married someone she describes as “the only alcoholic Iranian Shia Muslim”, a chap named Mahmoud. She took Mahmoud on her next posting – 3 years in Washington which included a period during the hostage crisis when Iranians weren’t exactly the most popular people in the United States.

Geraldine says she enjoyed her time in Foreign Affairs – the cocktail parties, the politics, the first class travel and plenty of other perks. But somehow she always felt like something was missing. She left the Department and returned to Sydney where she started working in an international bank.

It’s pretty awful working in a field that provides about as much enjoyment as a Jew or Muslim would feel at a pork sausage convention. On top of hating her job, Geraldine had to go through the humiliation of being sacked hardly 3 days before her work colleagues had arranged a party to celebrate her 50th birthday.

Geraldine then entered what is commonly known as a mid-life crisis. She decided to return to Cambodia where she worked for various Australian companies. On weekends, she would engage her maternal instincts on Cambodian children living at an orphanage managed by the Cambodian Royal Family.

Eventually, Geraldine set up her orphanage (which she prefers to describe as a “Village”) which has been forced to move 6 times before finding its present permanent home. The Village takes in orphans, many of whom are victims of Cambodia’s long civil war.

Geraldine described the work of her Village and other similar projects as literally saving Cambodian children. She said that for illiterate and impoverished women without any economic support, life presents only a limited number or combination of grim choices – they could starve, beg, steal or become sex workers on the streets or in brothels.

She told of one Cambodian mother who approached the Village with her two daughters who were in their early teens. The woman begged the Village to take the two girls whom she could no longer afford to support without selling one to a brothel owner.

Geraldine agreed to take the girls, and their mother would visit on weekends. Only God knows which grim choice the mother took to feed and clothe herself, but she would laugh with joy on seeing her daughters doing their homework and enjoying the company of other children.

For young Cambodian male orphans, the choices weren’t much better. They were often sold as slaves to work in factories or farms in return for small amounts of food. One young orphan had his eyes gouged out, presumably to be used in the organ trade, before Geraldine could reach him.

Geraldine now lives permanently in Cambodia. Her friends describe her as a serious hedonist, though she says that her pleasures are now gained from less materialistic sources. At 25, she was dumped by her husband-to-be after she was informed by doctors that biological motherhood would be impossible.

Now, in her 60’s, Geraldine Cox has hundreds of young Cambodians who call her “mum”. She realises that true happiness and fulfilment in life comes from service to others. What the Sufis call khidmat is the only real way to achieve inner peace. Those of us unable to directly serve Geraldine’s children can at least do our bit by supporting, promoting and donating to her Village.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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