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Liveblogging the Agriculture committee – Good things grow in Ontario, and we’re hoping it stays that way.


 

NOTE TO READERS:

It turns out that I was – well, let’s just call it what it was: wrong, wrong, wrong, at least as far as my prediction that this meeting would be “spectacularly uneventful.” It ended up running two and a half hours longer than scheduled, mostly because the government members had lined up officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to explain that those budget cuts documented in the memo leaked to CanWest earlier this year really weren’t the first step towards the Walkertonization of the Canadian food inspection system.

Not surprisingly, the opposition parties were sceptical, mostly because they still haven’t been allowed to see the document in question, which made for a somewhat surreal elephant-feel of a meeting. Read on for the blow-by-blow blogging.

4:15:08 PM
Well, the placeholder text is gone, but the reader caveat remains: This may be a spectacularly non-eventful meeting to liveblog.

A quick recap while we wait for the meeting to begin: The opposition parties are demanding an emergency hearing on proposed cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which they claim will lead to the deregulation of the current food safety system, and throw the integrity of Canada’s food supply into terrifying doubt. The government, meanwhile, is being tight lipped about these specific cuts, but presumably, will argue that this is a way to streamline the existing system, and food safety will never be compromised.

Okay, everyone caught up? Good. Anyway, that probably won’t be on the agenda for today, since this is just an organizational meeting, but it always helps to know the context, right?

4:22:15 PM
This isn’t one of my usual committees, so I’m not sure which of the members currently trickling into the room are permanent members, or substitutes, but so far, we have James Bezan – a Conservative – as the chair, and Guy Lauzon, Brian Storseth and – two other Tories on the government side.

Meanwhile, on deck for the opposition: Carolyn Bennett, who just got back from Montreal, where Health Minister Tony Clement apparently devoted virtually his entire speech to the Canadian Medical Association to InsIte. Yes, really. No, I don’t know either.

Anyway, also on the opposition side: Lloyd St. Amand and – oh, this could be good, Wayne Easter, and Paul Dewar for the NDP.

Oh, and the power is flickering because the apocalypse is underway outside, or at the very least, a simulation thereof. And me without an umbrella. Again.

4:27:50 PM
Ooh, apparently we may have a witness after all! A surprise witness, even. That could be fun.

Oh, and the two Conservatives I didn’t name before are Ed Komarnicki and Larry Miller.

4:30:28 PM
Andre Bellavance is here for the Bloc Quebecois, but seems to be the only one – which could get interesting if there’s a vote.

4:31:22 PM
And we’re off, with Wayne Easter leading off for Team 106(4). He thanks the chair for his cooperation in setting up the meeting, and then moves onto the main issue: the ostensibly secret document that described potential cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which was leaked to the media and resulted in the scientist who initially sent it to the union being fired.

The provisions, he notes, have been approved by Treasury Board, but the document has not been released for “significant communications risk”, according to the government.

He then lists the reasons *why* the document should be produced – concerns over food safety, both domestic and foreign, as well as lowered standards.

So basically, they’re going to request that the “secret” document be disclosed to the committee, to see if it is, in fact, about transfer and downloading the food safety system.

4:36:16 PM
Easter also points out that the industry – the processors, I guess – may pass the costs onto the producers, and even make a profit for itself, which would hurt farmers. It gives too much control to companies that already have too much control of the industry. According to Easter, that is, who just brought up tobacco and asbestos as examples of why sometimes the corporate sector doesn’t always put the public good ahead of profits.

Finally, it threatens to erode Canada’s reputation as a country with the highest safety standards, which could again hurt primary producers.

This is the government “cutting corners” – and a point to Easter for working the D-word into his conclusion by pointing out that Canada may be on the verge of going into deficit.

He wants unanimous consent for a motion asking for the so-called secret report. Also, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, it turns out, may be available tonight – seriously, guys? The union, meanwhile, would be available tomorrow morning at the crack of 8am.

4:42:15 PM
And now, debate! Guy Lauzon gets the Liberals back for that deficit crack by claiming that this is all to ‘change the channel’ on the carbon tax, and then accuses all and sundry of fearmongerng before suggesting that they get the real story from the officials at the agency later tonight.

4:43:20 PM
Paul Dewar wonders what the government is hiding, which is always a popular jumping-off point at committee, and reminds all and sundry about the treatment of past whistleblowers by the government – not this one, to be fair. “Don’t ask us to trust you, because we don’t,” he snarls, presumably in reference to food safety, and not – you know, everything.

Oh, and he also snipes over the handling of supposedly confidential documents – but everything is secret with the Conservatives, he suggests – if it could prove politically damaging.

4:46:50 PM
The Conservative members are in a sitting huddle – as opposed to the more intense standing huddle so often seen at Ethics. It mainly involves leaning over and whispering intently, and occasionally scribbling something down.

Meanwhile, Paul Dewar is very concerned over the possibility of the government getting out of the food inspection business, and thinks that the document that explains all that should be made available.

4:48:51 PM
Andre Bellevance will also support the motion, which isn’t exactly a surprise. Ooh, and a very fresh-faced Conservative staffer – seriously, he looks like he just fell off a Franklin Mint plate – just showed up with a sheaf of paper.

4:51:10 PM
Remember the tainted tomatoes, y’all. Which were actually peppers, as it turned out, weren’t they? Or do I have that backwards?
Anyway, he wants to hear from the agency *and* the union, and says the employee who sent the document out should be congratulated.

4:53:35 PM
Larry Miller once again tries to turn this into a rant about the carbon tax, and then proceeds to blame the *whistleblower* for threatening the public trust (as opposed to the agency that refuses to release the document) and then goes on a general meander against whistleblowers. At least, ones that blow the whistle in ways that could prove embarrassing to his government.
Wasn’t there something in the Accountability Platform about protecting whistleblowers? Or am I imagining things?

4:56:45 PM
After accusing the Liberal government of doing far worse during its forays into program review – avian flu, in particular – Larry Miller knows what this is all about, but he’s ready to hear the “real facts” from the CFIA.

Anyone else starting to spot a theme?

4:58:20 PM
Finally, Carolyn Bennett is up for – about ninety seconds before Ed Komarnicki uses a point of order to accuse her of fear mongering. The chair rules it out of order, and she predicts grave and horrifying consequences should the cuts actually happen.

And she gets the first mention of Walkerton, as well as the “Aylmer meat plant” and then awkwardly coins the word “Bushisization” which is a lot harder to say that spell, trust me. She wants to find the facts – if it turns out that there weren’t, in fact, cuts, she’ll be the first to say that’s a good thing.

5:02:07 PM
The chair reminds her that Walkerton and Aylmer were provincial, not federal – which isn’t the point, I don’t think; she was pointing to what she claims are the risks of cutting inspections.

5:03:48 PM
Storseth also, surprisingly, thinks that it’s a boffo idea to have agency officials tonight, although the other stuff – the fear mongering, hearing from the union – that’s less popular with him. He sort of allows that it *might* be necessary, possibly, maybe, but first the committee should “get the truth” by hearing from – yes, you guessed it – CFIA.

5:05:19 PM
Ken Boshkoff, who snuck in while I wasn’t looking, wonders what “significant communication risks” means to the public – why should that mean the committee shouldn’t get the document?

5:07:04 PM
Aha – I see the counteroffensive from the opposition – they’re happy to hear from the agency officials, but they’d like to see the document *first*, and study it so that they can ask informed questions.

Your move, government!

5:07:52 PM
Ed Komarnicki just suggested that Easter is “making a lot of hay” of the issue, and the tragic thing is that I really believe that pun was not intended.

5:09:21 PM
Lloyd St. Amand wonders why, if the concerns raised by the now former scientist were “baseless”, the government doesn’t simply release the report and let Canadians judge for themselves.

5:10:33 PM
Brian Storseth wants to suspend debate and hear from the witnesses right away, and return to the motion “at a later time”.

It doesn’t sound like the opposition members are going to go for it. “We’re not saying that we won’t continue with this … thrilling debate afterwards,” says Komarnicki. Did you notice that sarcasm? Maybe the pun was intended.

Easter notes that the motion deals with the prospect of a report that would eventually go to the House, so they should deal with that first.

The chair once again stresses that this would just break to hear from the witnesses who are here, and then, back to the motion.

Recorded vote: And the opposition votes it down.

5:14:12 PM
Picking up where he left off, Easter reminds the committee that, while Walkerton and Aylmer were indeed provincial, but three of the ministers in cabinet at the time – Baird, Flaherty and Clement – are in the current cabinet. They – the opposition members – are not going to let the government get away with risking the safety of Canadians. They want the document, and they want it now.

5:15:58 PM
I wonder which of the stressed-looking men in suits at the back of the room are the CFIA officials.

5:16:40 PM
And a spontaneous outburst of support for Stephane Dion and the Green Shift from Wayne Easter – at least he “puts it out there.”

5:17:17 PM
Despite the fact that Wayne Easter just brought up the carbon tax, Guy Lauzon follows up by — accusing the Liberals of wanting to “change the channel” on … the carbon tax. But if so, then why — oh, never mind.

Ed Komarnicki repeats the talking points – channel-changing, fear mongering, get the facts from the CFIA officials.

5:20:00 PM
Also, Brian Storseth just forgot the phrase “carbon tax” and referred to it as the “green … … … tax.” That will nonetheless hurt farmers. Then he accuses Wayne Easter of having a “hidden agenda” involving the Canadian Wheat Board, but disappointingly, the chair intervenes before he can explain.

5:21:24 PM
Someone better introduce an amendment to have the government release the document before starting the study, unless that’s explicitly mentioned in the Easter motion.

5:22:19 PM
Andre Bellavance wants to make sure that witnesses – like, say, the union – aren’t “intimidated” – which mean that the committee has to hear from more than just the agency.

5:23:51 PM
Okay, this is actually more interesting than I thought it would be. Darn you, committees, and your apparently limitless ability to suck me into issues I never thought I’d care about.

5:24:57 PM
Paul Dewar notes that this isn’t just about food inspection, but a vast agenda that is apparently just a little too vast for Larry Miller, who grumpily questions the relevance. This government, Dewar avers, already has a panel on divestiture, which is just another word for getting out of the regulatory business.

“We saw program review under the previous government, and it wasn’t pretty,” he says. This is all about saving money, and forcing agencies to make cuts. Canadians, however, would rather have investments in food safety than make the government look good.

5:27:31 PM
Larry Miller is puzzled as to why the committee doesn’t want to hear the truth, by which he means from the CFIA officials tonight, without having seen the report, which would make for pretty general questioning, I have to think.

Also, leaking is very, very bad.

He’d like to hear what CFIA has to say, anyway. But will he? The suspense is killing me!

5:29:58 PM
And that’s it for debate – the motion – the original Easter motion, that is – goes to a vote, and it carries unanimously. Wait, no – the Conservatives may have abstained. How do you abstain on a voice vote?

5:30:55 PM
Judo! Lauzon moves to hear from the witnesses “immediately”, and Easter countermoves to hear from the agency tomorrow morning at 8am.

Lauzon says he’s “more than willing” to hear from the witnesses, but he can’t be there tomorrow. Why not be negotiable on that? The CFIA officials, on the other hand, are right here.

5:33:06 PM
I cannot believe this committee is doing this to me. I may be here all night. That’ll teach me to — well, it’ll teach me something, I’m sure.

5:33:57 PM
Motion passes, the union will be asked to appear tomorrow, and now onto the main motion.

Oh, just parenthetically, Brian Storseth wants to table a motion on how evil the Canadian Wheat Board is, at least to western farmers. He’s not actually tabling it right now – he’s giving notice. Take that, Wayne Easter, and your hidden agenda!

5:36:50 PM
We’re now adjourned for five minutes. It’s anyone’s guess how long these witnesses will take, but considering nobody’s had dinner, I’m hoping it won’t go past 7pm.

5:38:41 PM
Eavesdropping on Wayne Easter, it seems that he suspects he’ll be out of here by 8. Here’s hoping he’s right.

Seriously, what kind of questions can they ask without seeing the report? I don’t get this at all.

5:41:13 PM
Good heavens – a literal throng of suits has descended upon the committee, presumably fresh from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Were they all waiting in the hallway?

5:43:49 PM
You know, I’m the only reporter here. Which means I *can’t* bail – even if I want to.

5:45:51 PM
Well, the three officials have taken the stand, and the meeting is back on. Actually, technically, this is a new meeting. We have Brian Evans, Gordon White and Paul Weirs, all from CFIA and with titles, I’m sure, but I didn’t catch them the first time round.

Brian Evans gets the ball rolling, and claims that there is “no basis in fact” for reports of imminent cuts to the agency’s food safety efforts.

Ooh, lightning. How very pathetic fallacy.

Okay, back to Evans; CFIA was one of the agencies targeted for program review, the cuts identified were “redirected” into the food safety system.

Some of the highlights of the new, improved system: bilingualism, cooperation with the Canadian Border Services Agency, something about dead birds.

Oh, speaking of dead birds – the avian flu prevention program is still in great shape, and the CFIA will receive over $60 million from the overall funds available. As for industry responsibility – it’s always been a “shared responsibility”. Also there are preventative systems, like the HAZUP systems, but all these measures must meet CFIA standards.

“The term self-policing has sometimes given a negative slant to this approach,” he acknowledges. Don’t worry, though, there will always be a need for strong government oversight.

5:54:08 PM
I swear, the entire audience is now taken up by CFIA staffers. I so don’t get why the opposition agreed to hear from these guys tonight – they haven’t even seen the report, so I don’t know what they can ask. Other than “Why can’t we see the report?” “No, really, why?” “How about now?”

Okay, Evans is winding down: modernization is good; science and best practices are also good, and there will be no changes without appropriate consultations.

Bring on the questions!

5:57:48 PM
Wayne Easter wants Evans to know that he – Easter – isn’t concerned at all about Evans; it’s the Prime Minister who worries him – the PM with the Hidden Agenda. Easter wonders if the minister or deputy minister have given Evans instructions on what to say, which sparks a point of order from the government, which is held by the chair.

Bezan then reads a very long excerpt from Marleau and Montpetit about how public servants don’t have to answer questions about confidential advice to ministers, or policy, and goes on and on and I think *he* thinks the answer is going to be yes, but we’ll never know because Easter doesn’t press the issue. He moves on, and asks whether it’s true that even if this secret document did include potential cuts, Evans wouldn’t be permitted to talk about it

This meeting is so informative so far.

Wayne Easter notes that if the PM decides there’s going to be a ten percent cut to the CFIA budget, that’s what the agency has to do. He makes the same point I just did – the officials can’t answer the questions, and the opposition hasn’t seen the document, so it’s more of a committee mooting than anything else.

6:03:10 PM
Easter tries one more question – truth in labelling and “product of Canada” designations – is there anything related to that in the document? Can they even answer that? Sort of, apparently – it wasn’t related to the budget. Paul Mayers backs him up, and assures Easter that the only adjustment would be to “remove the regulatory burden” on the industry by requiring advance review, and I’m in way over my head at this point.

6:06:26 PM
Bellavance takes issue with the claim that the document was somehow misrepresented: was it true, he wonders, that there were changes planned for the inspection system? The answer, according to Evans, is that this is “not an accurate statement.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could read the document, and see that for ourselves?

Is there divesting of responsibility, queries Bellavance – no, not on the part of CFIA is the answer.

Was the agency asked to reduce its budget by 5 percent? And is it true that the CFIA had to cut off assistance to producers for mad cow inspections? Is it true that industry will oversee food safety? Are the officials denying that these changes were actually approved in November? Is that why they decided to keep it secret until it was revealed by the now-fired scientist?

Wow, this guy really is a former journalist.

Yes, CFIA was one of the agencies that had to identify “up to five percent” of its budget as “underperforming” or otherwise wasted, at which point that money would be reallocated to other areas. The CFIA didn’t lose any money, he’d like to stress.

As for the BSE surveillance, the media reports were also inaccurate, according to Evans. The agency is still involved, and the undertaking has identified that the agency can better target animals with higher potential to develop BSE.

And that’s it for Bellavance’s time. Wow, seven minutes goes by fast. I miss ten minute rounds.

6:14:16 PM
Guy Lauzon now mentions fear mongering (by the opposition) and demands that the agency confirm that there is no basis for concern. “That’s what I said,” replies Evans. Okay, it has now become apparent that Lauzon is just reading Evans’ opening statement, and asking him to confirm what he said half an hour earlier.

Eventually, Lauzon winds down with the obligatory shot at Wayne Easter, at which point Brian Storseth notes that there is a secret report, and the opposition wants to see it. Yes, that’s about right.

Storseth then lists all the bad things that aren’t going to happen, despite the menacing ramblings of Wayne Easter. A shot at the Green “Shaft” – oh, that never gets old – before asking the same question as Bellavance did on the five percent reduction, but from a different angle.

Bureaucrats don’t always get their way, is the upshot. Sometimes they propose stuff that is eventually rejected by the government of the day.

6:20:59 PM
Seven minutes somehow seems so much longer when Storseth is talking. He’s onto his last question now, tho – he wants a list of countries already using science-based program for food safety, using approaches such as HAZUP. The United States, Europe, Japan, according to Evans. That wasn’t actually all that specific.

6:22:56 PM
Paul Dewar wants to get back to “how we got here” – the government told the agency to make cuts, and they brought forward proposed “efficiencies”. He invites Evans to list some of them, and they involve words like “harmonization” and “adjustment”, but Dewar wonders where he can find the details of the operational changes that were announced in the budget. Where can he find the detailed information? Is it public domain?

6:25:23 PM
Mayers says that the direction the agency has initiated for the — and thankfully, Dewar interrupts: So, they’re not public, correct? The only change – sorry, adjustment – for the 2007 budget was to the avian flu program.

Basically, the answer is no – there is no way that Paul Dewar, or anyone else, can get a detailed explanation of the proposed changes. There’s an announcement, and an approach, but no details. Evans confirms that this is the case, but notes that there have to be consultations first.

6:29:03 PM
Guy Lauzon has wandered out of the room. I guess he’s heard enough to know that the opposition is just fear mongering again. As always. Oh, that opposition, always with the fear.

6:30:23 PM
Dewar asks a technical question about the number of BSE samples taken, compared to say, Japan. Oddly, this seems to make Evans a little uncomfortable – he talks about different standards for different reasons that are not science or safety-based. I guess that means more than Canada.

6:31:50 PM
Five minute rounds! St. Amand wonders if ther report actually exists, but is point-of-ordered. How surreal is this – an entire meeting devoted to discussing a document that doesn’t officially exist? Evans definitely seems uncomfortable – the furthest he’ll go is say that the agency did submit a Memorandum to Cabinet.

Moving onto BSE, St. Amand asks if it’s accurate to say that the agency is trying to convince Canadians that the risk won’t be any greater even after the cuts to the budget, and Evans grabs the question like a lifeline. Of course. Of course!

That wouldn’t be based on “anecdotal evidence,” though, St. Amand notes. It must be based on science, right? Testing? A risk assessment? Was a risk assessment done? Those are done regularly, says Evans – on an annual basis. Can he table it? He’ll table the most recent one submitted to the international – sorry, I didn’t catch the rest.

Oh, and the incentive program hasn’t been cancelled – it continues to this day, Evans says. It isn’t incentive, but reimbursment, and covers different costs, depending on the case.

6:39:04 PM
Larry Miller doesn’t think much of Paul Dewar’s views on the beef industry – as a cattleman himself, he takes offence, and punishes us all with a tortured kd lang reference.

There is no shift in the CFIA mandate, Mayers assures him. Have any changes been made public, asks Miller? Yes, any changes will involve full disclosure and consultations.

You know, from a purely political perspective, the opposition parties may have played this right by hearing from CFIA tonight – long after deadline, with nobody but me paying attention – and the union tomorrow morning, when it will definitely get media attention.

6:43:21 PM
The opposition is trying to make it sound like doing a review is a bad thing, Miller sighs, when really, it’s all about doing things better. Evans reminds the committee that he’s been at the agency since its inception, and believes that the only responsible way to manage risk is to undertake these reviews on an ongoing basis.

6:45:34 PM
And now, the Bloc MP for Saint-Hyacinthe, and I can’t see her nametag, so that’s how she’ll be known until I can check the members list. She wants to know if any jobs will be lost in her riding, and if the agency can guarantee that bilingual services will be maintained.

Evans assures her that the CFIA laboratory, there is no programming changes that would result in job losses, and no effort to reduce bilingual service.

Saint-Hyacinthe wonders if there will be changes to the agency’s mandate in the future – honestly, can he really know that? – and Evans tells her he’s not aware of any movement to amend the enabling act under which the agency operates.

Bellavance asks about a future plan that hasn’t been made public – there haven’t *been* any changes, but what they want to know is whether there *will* be changes.

Mayers – who looks a little frustrated – repeats that he has no knowledge of any move to review the mandate.

6:51:21 PM
Well, at least it’s stopped raining. If I ever get out of here, I’ll be able to walk home without suffering the consequences of my umbrellalessness.

Oh, and Mayers is assuring the committee that in, for instance, the harmonization on feed control, there will be effective controls on points where hazards might be introduced, which will augment the ability to demonstrate the ultimate safety of the account.

6:53:15 PM
Ed Komarnicki thanks the officials for appearing, and joins the Conservative chorus of condemnations of Wayne Easter, who reminds him – Komarnicki – that this is actually about the proposals made in a secret document that nobody has seen. He, too, summarizes the opening statement, which makes it seem even more likely that it was written with the full cooperation, shall we say, of the minister’s office.

Paul Dewar just left too.

And then there were nine. Well, ten with the chair. The committee is now outnumbered by CFIA officials.

6:57:34 PM
Is it just me, or is it a little unsettling to see executives from ostensibly independent regulatory agencies brought forward to defend the government on a political issue? It’s a little like that whole Chalk River fiasco, somehow.

6:59:32 PM
Ken Boshkoff has a few questions too, mostly about why these proposals never came up before the document was made public, and asks what, in his view, constitutes a “communications risk”?

Evans points out that these sorts of changes are usually covered in the plans and priorities documents, and main estimates. The agency doesn’t use the words “communications risk”, but does know all about “risk communication” which has nothing to do with the question, but never mind – Evans is clearly relishing the answer that he is delivering; this has to have been a tough night, so he deserves a break.

St. Amand wonders where, then, that term – communication risk – would come from: the minister’s office? Evans says again that it doesn’t come from CFIA, which would seem to be a yes by process of elimination. Public servants, however, can’t comment on cabinet confidences, and try saying that five times fast.

7:03:59 PM
Forseth asks whether the proposed “efficiencies” or “adjustments” or whatever we’re calling the five percent cuts were signed off on by the agency. Evans says that they were, and then “puts it on the record” that he is proud and amazed at the level of professionalism and competence of his staff. Also, our food is safe. Yay!

In response to a question from Larry Miller, in which he sniggers at that city boy Paul Dewar who thinks we should test every single cow or broiler or pig, Evans explains how sampling works.

7:09:37 PM
Carolyn Bennett just wants us to be clear on the nature of program review, and notes that normally, these cuts are posted publicly. It concerns her, though, that a regulatory agency would be cut – “cut the Snow Birds or something,” she imagines a minister saying – as does the secret report. There haven’t been cuts yet, she notes, but there may be reductions in what were planned to be increases. Is that the case?

Anyway, she’s worried that they don’t have the full story – and they won’t until they have the report. Is there a second report reversing this plan?

What are we to do, she wonders, to reassure Canadians when this secret report is out there, and the public is concerned?

7:13:21 PM
Evans starts to answer, but then Bennett thinks of another question – has CFIA ever been exempt from program review? Not exactly, no. As for the process, the expenditure management system involves all agencies and department.

They can’t possibly go for a third round, can they?

7:17:50 PM
Less oversight, you’ll all be glad to know, can also mean shifted oversight – from the bottom to the top, in the case of feed.

7:18:27 PM
Wayne Easter wants consensus to use the big, important television-friendly committee rooms, and Komarnicki agrees in the least gracious way possible, taking yet another shot at Wayne Easter. At least he didn’t mention the carbon tax, right?

St. Amand asks when the committee will be getting the report, and the chair points out that the motion doesn’t include a timeline. He’s sure that, in due time, he’ll get around to asking the ministry.

Note to opposition: Next time, put in a deadline.

Oh, and the CFIA officials can’t table it, even if they have copies, because it’s not up to them to break cabinet confidences.

Okay, this seems to be winding down. Tune in tomorrow at – some time between 8am and 8:30 for the union, and The Rest of the Story.

Unfortunately, ITQ will likely not be able to liveblog it due to a previous commitment, but we’ll see if we can at least catch the last half. We may deputize a comment thread as an acting liveblog. Til then, anyway.


 

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