Stephen Harper: Conservative? Maybe not.

Not so fast with the labels. An exhaustive audit of Stephen Harper’s nine years in power reveals a surprisingly (gasp) liberal economic record.

Darren Calabrese/CP

Darren Calabrese/CP

The partisan battle lines over federal economic policy keep shifting. For much of last year it looked like the defining clash would be over middle-class incomes. More recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new tax break for couples with kids has dominated his sparring with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau. On any given day, though, the hottest economic argument might seem to be about government spending levels, or trade policy, or programs meant to boost competitiveness. Maybe the best way to squeeze all these elements, and more, into a single frame is to consider a slogan the Conservatives are testing out in the run-up to the federal election set for this coming Oct. 19: “We’re better off with Harper.”

Expect to hear Conservatives deliver many variations on that crucial, debatable claim in the days before Finance Minister Joe Oliver delivers his budget on April 21. Oliver’s signature pledge is to balance the books, but staunching the flow of red ink won’t settle the bigger question of whether Canadians are, in fact, better off sticking with the current PM. Seriously trying to answer it requires ditching partisan clichés. Voters used to thinking along the stereotypical lines of party brands need to give their heads a shake when the Conservatives in power have run a string of deficits, after an era when Liberals delivered a run of sizable surpluses.

And that’s not the only way Harper’s record fails to conform to expectations. This is a Tory government that often spends freely—one might even say liberally—to intervene in the private sector, is less than frugal by some measures when it comes to government administration, and cuts taxes in unexpected ways. It’s the surprises that make it all interesting. So here, with the help of some top analysts and data compiled by experts exclusively for Maclean’s, is the most comprehensive look yet inside the black box of Harper’s economic record—from the moment he won power in 2006 to today.

Taxes: Hardly a Republican agenda

No criticism is more often levelled at Harper these days than the charge that his tax policy tilts toward the wealthy. At issue is his new “family tax cut,” which will allow couples with kids to transfer up to $50,000 from the higher-earning to the lower-earning spouse, so that income is taxed in the lower bracket. The yearly saving is capped at $2,000 per couple, but still adds up to an eyebrow-raising $2.2 billion—a huge revenue sacrifice for a government still struggling to stop deficit-spending and return to surplus. Trudeau charges that Harper “spent that surplus, before it even arrived, on a big tax cut for wealthy Canadians—a $2,000 gift.”

In fact, most of the benefits won’t flow to Canadians in the highest tax brackets. The independent parliamentary budget officer provided Maclean’s a breakdown of how income-splitting will be divided among families. The PBO’s projection: 52 per cent of the $2.2-billion in income-splitting benefits will flow to the roughly one-third of two-parent families that make between $60,000 and $120,000. Only 32 per cent of the benefits will go to households making more than $120,000, while just 17 per cent helps out families making less than $60,000.

It’s hard to construe that division as mainly benefiting the rich. And this isn’t an isolated case. Last spring, the PBO analyzed the effect of all the tax reforms of the Harper era up to 2013, including the introduction of the Child Tax Credit, the Working Income Tax Benefit, and an increase in the basic personal exemption. The PBO concluded that the changes “have been progressive overall and most greatly impact low- and middle-income earners,” those making between $12,200 and $23,300, who saw an average four per cent boost in after-tax income. The highest 10 per cent of earners, by comparison, pocketed tax savings of 1.4 per cent of income.

Even experts who are sharply critical of Harper’s tax policy in other respects don’t tend to see his reforms as particularly skewed toward upper-income earners. “A lot of the tax policy of this government hasn’t been terribly pro-rich,” says University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan, who serves on Trudeau’s economic advisory council (and contributes online for Maclean’s). “Contrast it to the Republicans in the U.S.,” he adds, “who are always saying, ‘Cut that top rate to unleash the innovation of the richest people.’ You just don’t hear that argument from the Harper Conservatives.”

Milligan sees big problems, however, with other facets of Harper’s tax-policy approach. On income-splitting, he points to the unfairness of excluding single-parent families and Canadians without kids. Like many tax experts, Milligan is also frustrated by the complicated array of gimmicky changes Harper has introduced—like the credits for children’s fitness and arts activities, or transit passes.

The bottom line? When the Tories took power, personal income taxes amounted to 7.4 per cent of gross domestic product; by 2014, those taxes on individuals’ earnings had notched down just slightly to seven per cent of GDP. Corporate income taxes fell a lot more over the same period, to 1.9 per cent of GDP from 2.6 per cent—a major complaint of the NDP. All told, Oliver can accurately claim that “the federal tax burden is at its lowest level in 50 years.” Personal tax relief has been spread across the income spectrum, but an already complicated tax code has been made more unwieldy in the process.

Jobs: More but not the best kind

Even more than bragging about lower taxes, Harper and Oliver jump at any chance to boast of adding 1.2 million new jobs since the recession. That’s measured from the 16.7 million Canadians working at the low point in the 2009 recession to the 17.9 million with jobs now. Job creation was strongest early in the recovery. The Canadian economy added just 121,000 jobs in all of 2014, and that was before the oil-price plunge really started to hurt. But many economists don’t view the unemployment rate, or even total employment, as the most telling indicator. They focus instead on the labour market participation rate: This measure of all those working or actively looking for jobs stood at 65.7 per cent at the end of last year—its lowest level since 2000.

Related reading: The A to Z of the oil crash 

Making international comparisons is tricky, but for 2015, the forecast from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts Canada in the middle of the pack, adding jobs at a slightly slower rate than the U.S. and Britain, but better than France, Germany, Italy or Japan.

Sorting out how good any new jobs are is an even tougher challenge. The CIBC’s closely watched employment-quality index blends data on the split between full- and part-time jobs, and between self-employment and paid employment, while also taking into account which parts of the economy are generating jobs. CIBC deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal said the index has shown the quality of jobs declining overall since the early 1990s. When Tal’s latest job-quality report came out last month, Harper’s opposition adversaries pounced on its finding that the job quality index dropped 1.8 per cent in the past year.

But pinning that on the Tories may be too glib. “This is not a political statement,” Tal says. “This is not about what should be done; it’s about what I see.” He stresses that long-term deterioration in the quality of jobs isn’t a uniquely Canadian problem; it reflects a troubling decline in middle-paying work, especially in manufacturing, across many developed countries. One result is a rise in self-employment. Although he is careful not to denigrate working for yourself, Tal notes that it tends to pay less and be less stable. And last year, the ranks of self-employed Canadians increased four times faster than the number in new salaried jobs.

Not everyone looks at the job market with Tal’s eye for durable trends and deep patterns. Perceptions depend on boom-and-bust cycles and vary dramatically across provinces. The boldest theme of Harper’s economic message used to be his vision of Canada as an “energy superpower,” and where oil rules, Canadians have indeed prospered—at least until lately. According to Statistics Canada, the median family in Alberta enjoyed a 20 per cent raise between 2006 and 2012, the latest figures available, from $72,700 to $87,410. That was considerably better than the rise in total income for the median Canadian family (including couples or single parents with kids, plus couples without kids), which rose 14 per cent between 2006 and 2012. The median family in Ontario saw its total income climb from $62,200 to $67,900, or nine per cent, less than half the Alberta income hike.

That imbalance has been thrown into sharp relief by the stunning drop in oil prices that began last year and is hitting those former boom provinces hard. Harper has to hope good news starts materializing, as some economists forecast, in other regions. The petro-sensitive Canadian dollar’s fall should make manufactured products, particularly from Ontario’s industrial heartland, more competitive in export markets—eventually. In the meantime, the punishing oil-sector slump can only underscore the fact that Harper’s employment record—both on job creation and middle-class incomes—has relied to a great degree on a resource boom that was ultimately outside any government’s control.

The jobs and incomes stories of the Conservative years have looked healthy enough on a national basis, but those regional differences are what Canadians really feel. The question is whether voters shrug that off as inevitable in a geographically sprawling, industrially diverse country—or as evidence of an oil-obsessed government that failed to fully consider the wider picture.

Trade: Bright patches in a clouded scene

The only part of Brian Mulroney’s legacy that the Harper Conservatives fully embrace is free trade. They tout new free trade deals like the Canada-South Korea agreement, which came into force this year, and the Canada-European Union pact, for which prolonged negotiations wrapped up last year, although the deal hasn’t yet been implemented. Trade Minister Ed Fast recently launched a blue-chip advisory council for Canada’s global markets action plan, made up of nine business executives.

Cold statistics, however, don’t fully back up the Tories’ pro-trade narrative. During the Harper era to date, exports actually fell as a share of the Canadian economy to 31.5 per cent from 35.5 per cent, according to Export Development Canada. As well, the EDC says manufacturing’s slice of Canadian merchandise exports dropped to 60.7 per cent from 72.3 per cent—another reminder of Harper’s emphasis on oil and other commodity exports to drive growth.

But Peter Hall, chief economist at EDC, the federal agency that provides insurance and financing services to Canadian exporters and their international buyers, points to promising data about the share of Canadian merchandise exports going to fast-growing new markets, like China, Brazil and India, rather than slower-growing traditional ones, like the U.S. and Europe. Exports to emerging economies climbed to 12 per cent in 2014 from 7.5 per cent in 2006. “That’s a remarkable change in the distribution of trade,” Hall says.

Still, the woes of Canadian firms selling into the U.S.—by far Canada’s biggest foreign market—cast a dark shadow. Harper’s failure to convince Barack Obama’s White House to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would funnel Alberta oil sands crude to refineries on Texas’s Gulf Coast, is the most glaring setback, but far from the only worry. Even before the international credit meltdown of 2008, and the recession that followed, the U.S. was proving problematic. Hall points to three factors: “border thickening” that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as tighter security rules made it harder for Canadian firms to ship south; the “tech wreck,” led by the fall of Nortel, that shrank Canada’s export-intensive technology sector; and, until recently, the loonie’s high value, which hiked the effective price of all Canadian exports to the U.S. and beyond.

Darren Calabrese/CP

Darren Calabrese/CP

Those setbacks, and then the Great Recession, were mostly beyond the Harper government’s control. Sealing a major European deal, along with other agreements either signed or in the works, was within its reach and has to be credited. Presiding over those rising sales to emerging markets helps, too. Taken together, the positive signs should be enough for the Conservatives to make a credible case for looking forward to better days on the trade front.

Innovation: An old problem still unsolved

Anxiety in Ottawa about Canada’s weak record when it comes to creating innovative companies goes back decades. Harper’s response had a familiar ring: commission a report. He appointed a high-profile panel on federal support for research and development, headed by Tom Jenkins, the chairman of Canada’s biggest software company, Open Text of Waterloo, Ont. The Jenkins panel tabled its findings in 2011, recommending, among other things, establishing an industrial research and innovation council to oversee dozens of federal programs aimed at helping companies bring new ideas to market.

That council hasn’t been created. Other key Jenkins recommendations have been only partially acted on or shelved. So it’s not hard to find disillusioned experts on science and technology, research and development. “The Jenkins report wasn’t a watershed because it got deep-sixed,” says David Arthurs, president of Hickling Arthurs Low, an Ottawa consulting firm specializing in innovation and technology policy. “The government really didn’t follow up on it.”

Nobina Robinson, chief executive officer of Polytechnics Canada, an association that represents technical institutes and research-oriented community colleges, served on the Jenkins panel. Robinson says the government’s main goal, and the panel’s mission, was to boost private sector spending on innovation—a category in which Canada has persistently trailed rival countries. Business R & D spending in Canada fell from $16.5 billion in 2006 to $15.4 billion in 2014, a trend blamed by a Council of Canadian Academies panel in part on isolated setbacks like the fall of Nortel—once the country’s biggest corporate R & D spender—but also on broadly based declines in many industries. “If the objective was to increase business innovation,” Robinson concludes, “we’re not seeing it.”

But the Conservatives’ defenders say it’s too early to judge if key policy changes designed to spur innovation will succeed or fail. In their 2012 budget, the Tories tried to better target the key Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax incentive, known as SR&ED. The SR&ED tax credit rate was cut to 15 per cent from 20 per cent, and firms were no longer allowed to claim capital expenditures, only expenses like salaries, materials and overhead. The government followed up by revamping the National Research Council, shifting its focus from funding basic science to “better serve Canadian businesses and help them compete in the global marketplace against the world’s most innovative companies.”

Critics argue the NRC’s new mandate short-changes fundamental research. As for the SR&ED reforms, even the lobby group Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, which praises much of Harper’s policy mix, complains that some of its members are finding it harder to get tax breaks for their R & D. But these reforms at least mean the Tories can’t be accused of ignoring this long-standing Canadian economic shortcoming, even if the numbers so far don’t add up to clear progress.

Spending: Not exactly Conservative restraint

Beyond the elusive innovation policy puzzle, anyone who expected the free-market-oriented Conservatives to be restrained about injecting tax dollars into the private sector must have be shocked by what’s transpired. For instance, Harper kept regional development spending up over $1 billion a year, even creating a whole new agency to subsidize southern Ontario (a key electoral battleground) to the tune of more than $200 million a year.During the 2009 recession, the government approved a $9-billion bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. When it comes to infrastructure projects, the Harper government touts its $53-billion New Building Canada Plan as the biggest in Canadian history. Even more spending in the April 21 budget on infrastructure and for business, especially manufacturers, is being promised by Industry Minister James Moore.

Does all this qualify the Harper Tories as inveterate big spenders? Nobody knows their spending record better than Kevin Page, who probed it from 2008-13 as the first independent parliamentary budget officer, and now keeps watch as a professor at nearby University of Ottawa. Page breaks the Harper era into three parts: higher spending and serious tax cuts “out of the gate” in the 2006-08; a gusher of stimulus in 2009-10 to counter the recession; and, since then, restraint to try to rebalance the books.

Federal program spending in 2014-15 stood at 13 per cent of GDP, a shade higher than the 12.6 per cent in 2005-06, when Harper bounced the Liberals from office. “It might be a surprise for people—a Conservative government and spending has gone up as a share of the economy,” Page says. “Or that under a Conservative government, we’ve actually had deficits seven out of nine years.” By comparison, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin not only eliminated deficits, they shrank Ottawa’s spending sharply as a share of the overall economy. But Page points out that those were very different times: Chrétien ruled while a sustained stretch of growth swelled GDP, and Martin’s assault on deficits as finance minister kept a lid on spending.

Perhaps more telling than total spending is the change in the mix under Harper. Federal transfer payments to individuals (such as pensions) and to the provinces (including health funding) are actually up slightly as a share of GDP, while Ottawa’s spending on its own programs is down as a portion of the economy. From a high of $122.8 billion, or 7.8 per cent of GDP in 2009-10, direct program spending dropped to $114.1 billion, 5.8 per cent of GDP, in 2014-15.

That might seem to give Harper ample room to run as a frugal manager. But Page says a closer look at the efficiency of government operations doesn’t back that up. His tally of “back-office expenditures”—spending on everything from procurement and information technology to human resources—shows an increase during the Harper years, both in absolute dollars and as a share of federal spending. “This is probably one of those inconvenient truths the government would not like to get out—that they’re claiming greater productivity, but we’re not seeing it in terms of their back-office functions,” Page says.

Internal operations, however, are rarely the focus of much public debate. More likely to matter is which highly visible priorities get funded. Page detects some patterns that might be expected under the Conservatives. Spending is up on public safety priorities like the RCMP and prisons, but down—during the recent restraint period—on culture and the environment. Less in keeping with Conservative rhetoric, he notes, is the recent squeeze on Defence, after heralded increases in the early Harper years. All told, he says, the major segments of spending—the shares spent on the economy, social and international affairs, defence and government—look much the same after nine years of Harper. “Spending on the broad policy envelopes,” Page says, “has not shifted that much.” Permanent change to Ottawa’s basic place in the Canadian economy, if indeed it’s coming, is proceeding at a stealthy pace.

But that’s not to say nothing consequential is happening; it’s just unfolding in ways that stubbornly refuse to confirm expectations or justify hasty verdicts. Taxes are down, but the tax system is messier. There are more jobs and higher incomes, but regional and sectoral imbalances create as much anxiety as optimism. Exports haven’t been stellar, but show signs of promise. Canada’s chronic innovation anemia hasn’t been cured, but nobody expected a miracle.

Of course, none of these fuzzy, frustrating, fascinating complications will be showcased in the sales job around this month’s budget. Conservative claims will exaggerate success, opposition counter-claims amplify failure. Somewhere in between lies the real economy where Canadians pay taxes, hope their kids find prosperity, and wake up—even on the morning after a budget or an election—and go to work.


Stephen Harper: Conservative? Maybe not.

  1. It is said that statistics can be made to lie. They can also represent rather facile errors. For instance, when one suggests that the poor (defined as income between $12,200 and $23,300, or lets say $17,750) benefit by 4%, while wealthy (defined as income $120,000 and above, or lets just say $120,000) benefit by only 1.4%, one needs to enter one further calculation to arrive at an accurate conclusion as to who benefits most. 4% of $17,750 = $710. 1.4% of $120,000 = $1,680. Who benefits more?

    • How typical! Why not try asking who needs it the most???

      • The low-income earner – hands down. But what’s your point? If you are trying to argue that Harper has treated the poor better than the higher wage earners, in terms of absolute dollars it isn’t true.

        And absolute dollars, not percentage of income, is a much fairer way to assess the benefit in terms of who is getting the best deal.

        • Hey Stephen Abbot. Better read the article again. We have always had a progressive tax system. The “poor” pay nothing or almost nothing. The rich pay a LOT of taxes. You sound like a socialist where the poor takes from the rich. The poor get government services for almost nothing. They are paid for by the high earners. Of course, we also have to get rid of loopholes. People are benefiting in proportion to what they pay, fogoshsakes!

          • I find it funny how you said, that the ‘rich’ pay a lot of taxes, like you’re rich too, and that they needed every penny that they make. So please educate us, what do the rich need more money for? Is it to donate more money to their favorite politicians in terms of campaign contributions to be able to tell politicians how to run this country! It’s people such as you and John Geddes who may have his own political agenda which is why this country is suffering.

  2. “Conservative? Maybe not.”

    Fascist war-monger? Most definitely.

    • Get offit! Name calling will get you nowhere. I guess I get to call you a left-wing stooge then?

      • And you condone the suffering of others by supporting this right wing Nazi, I call Harper! How many more vets have to take their own lives in Canada as a result of this gov’t!

  3. IMO, MacLean’s Magazine has become one of the printed media who has sold out to the Harper agenda and the fear of Harper retaliation. This PM is the worst in Canadian history and as a so-called economist, a disaster. I’ve had it with you people.

    • Nonsense. Look at the polls. Try Nanos weekly and see who the people like

    • I don’t think it’s the magazine as much as the person who wrote the article, by the name of John Geddes! Does Conrad Black still owns MacLean’s? Instead of putting more money into post office workers that serves the general public, the caucus rather take that money and put it into more money into commercials and fat pockets of CEOs of Canadian Post!

  4. But what do the Ratings Agencies say… Oh My they ALL SAY AAA………..

  5. If Harper were truly practicing Liberal economics, wouldn’t we have been running a surplus or at least balanced budgets?

    • Why would you say that? Look at Ontario’s Liberals, they’re running massive deficits. Justin Trudeau hasn’t proposed anything about a balanced budget, only more spending and has supported Kathleen Wynne’s deficits repeatedly.

    • If you had been around a few years ago you would have noted that we had a major recession in 2008 to pull out of and he and his finance ministers are doing that.

  6. I think I could’ve saved the author a lot of work here.

    Harper isn’t a fiscal conservative. People have been pointing this out for eight years now. So writing a massive article to prove the point hardly seems a good use of time. LOL

    Harper is and has always been a social conservative populist.

    In other words, his conservatism is tied to religious folksy notions among the old-timey rural social conservative set.

    His legislative and economic policies reflect this in everything from this tax splitting that clearly benefits families with stay-at-home moms (over the poor or single parent families) to boutique cuts to help pay for sonny’s hockey or a few cents off a Tims with the GST cut.

    No, don’t be confused; Harper very much a conservative.

    He’s just not the kind of conservative he’s fooled some into believing he is.

    • Exactly. Just because Harper spends like a Liberal – a whopping $170B in debt so far – doesn’t mean he is Liberal.

      However, these days there is no significant difference between a Conservative and a Liberal. They are both naturally corporatist in their agendas, which are surprisingly identical I might add – and only a few years removed from the green platform of the LPC in 2011 – just as the voting records of the LPC & CPC are eerily similar in the House of Commons.

      Yes, Harper is “very much a conservative” – and so is Trudeau.

      • “Harper spends like a Liberal”

        Depends on the Liberal you compare him to. The last time this country was run by Liberals, they were the most fiscally responsible government in the past 50 years.

        Harper’s performance admittedly does look good, however, if you compare him to the Ontario Liberals.

  7. This article is an example of lazy writing and poor logical analysis.

    “52 per cent of the $2.2-billion in income-splitting benefits will flow to the roughly one-third of two-parent families that make between $60,000 and $120,000. Only 32 per cent of the benefits will go to households making more than $120,000, while just 17 per cent helps out families making less than $60,000. It’s hard to construe that division as mainly benefiting the rich.”

    So: What fraction of 2 parents with child(ren) families earn more than $120,000 and get 32% of the dollars?
    What fraction of 2 parents with child(ren) families earn less than $60,000 and get 17% of the dollars? What fraction of households don’t have 2 parents? What fraction of households don’t have eligible kids? This data is NOT INCLUDED in the article and appears impossible to find on the Statistics Canada website now that the “Harper Government” has eliminated the Long Form Census data gathering technique.

    Maclean’s “experts” are suggesting that Harper is not really a Conservative. Two concerns with the “experts”.
    They appear to be committing the “Base Rate Fallacy”: making a probability judgment based on conditional probabilities, without taking into account the effect of prior probabilities.
    They also appear to be making the “Equivocation Fallacy” when the “experts” state: “This is a Tory government that often spends freely—one might even say liberally—to intervene in the private sector,… is less than frugal…”. The use of the term “liberally” leads the myopically motivated reader to conclude that any such described behaviours of spending are connected to “liberal” and by no mean stretch of suasion “Liberal”. Does the reader conclude that spending behaviour is “liberal” and thus “Liberal” and therefore ‘bad’?
    It might also be accused of “Begging the Question”: providing what is essentially the conclusion of the argument as its premise.

    This article is an example of poor logical analysis and lazy writing – it does not include full data for comparative analysis – but then again, that is possibly the intention of the new Harper Census data gathering technique . Provide data that is useless for comparison and valid planning purposes?

    • I agree – Geddes does seem to be trying awfully hard to appear neutral while quietly waving the CPC flag.

    • What’s in a name? You say the Liberals are ‘liberal’. I say they are left leftish (and politically different from provincial liberals by a mile.) Sure Rogers is after a buck but it is their columnists who speak without forked tongue. Geddes point is that by policies national Conservatives are not “conservative” (ie preserve the good points of the past, if you like.) but while, the others have looked the other way have captured the centre of the road Twitter deserves twitter-like comments.

      • The Liberals are the party closest to the Center with the green party next. NDP far left, Conservative far right. If you are a Conservative everyone else appears to be a lefty.

  8. None of this really matters when you think of the way the Conservatives have taken our money and moved it from support of science and the environment to publicly funded partisan advertising ($175 million in 2014, $0.75 Billion since taking power).
    None of this is significant when you consider how much democracy we have lost (contempt of parliament, abuse of the senate, disrespect of the Supreme Court, supremacy of the PMO.)
    None of this changes the fact that Harper has practically destroyed Canada’s international reputation as an impartial arbiter (for 60 years diplomacy was the number one plank in foreign affairs followed by development, trade and military action [peacekeeping] – Harper changed that to military action [aggression], trade, diplomacy and development only where it supported trade). Diplomacy happens out of the public eye but it is a far better way to solve problems than to rush in with guns blazing.

  9. I guess Geddes couldn’t find a way to show that the GST cuts did not give the greatest benefit to those who spend the most, those with the most money to spend. The GST is our most progressive tax. It is also the only tax where, if you are able and willing to wait for sales, you can pay less tax while getting what you want/need.

  10. My Goodness the Unbiased Macleans Was surprised about the Record of the former Conservative Government of Canada. Sarcasm Off.

    If the Macleans Magazine ever stopped being the running dogs for the Liberal Party of Canada-Ontario-Quebec, then their understanding of Canadian Politics would move beyond understanding Politics in Canada is NOT Corruption-Corruption-Corruption; when the Liberal do nothave control of The Tax-Payer’s Funds.

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