The Commons: A thoroughly unsexy day

Lisa Raitt provides no apology, the House is stunned

lisaraittThe Scene. Michael Ignatieff wasted few words on the way to a rather devastating question.

“Mr. Speaker, in private, the Minister of Natural Resources said that the isotope crisis was sexy, a means to advance her career,” he began in French. “So how can the Prime Minister explain the words of his minister to a woman who has just discovered she has breast cancer, is waiting for a test, but who cannot due to the isotope crisis?”

Standing opposite and speaking evenly, the Prime Minister proceeded directly to the government’s pat response.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “the crisis of isotopes is very serious.”

He reassured the nation and enthused about his minister and then returned to his seat.

Mr. Ignatieff seemed genuinely surprised.

“Mr. Speaker,” he exclaimed, “there was no apology, nothing. It’s amazing.”

The Liberal leader proceeded then to up the rhetorical ante.

“Last week a curtain parted to reveal the government’s deep cynicism about the issues facing our country,” he ventured. “The concerns of our largest city are dismissed with a profanity. A health care crisis is designed or re-described as an opportunity for career advancement. How will the Prime Minister explain the comments of his minister, not to this House but to a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer who is desperate for a scan and who cannot get it because of the isotope shortage?”

As soon as the Prime Minister was back on his feet, his pointy finger was out and prodding the air. “Mr. Speaker, what I say is that this government has been seized with this issue for some time,” he replied, now louder. “This minister has been working around the clock to make sure that we get a greater supply of isotopes and to make sure we have alternative options for our health care patients in this country.”

Then, a parting shot. “That is what the minister is doing,” Mr. Harper finished, “and that is what this government is doing, not playing cheap politics.”

The Conservative side stood to cheer, various members chanting “cheap” like a bunch of well-dressed chickadees. Mr. Ignatieff stood and took the opportunity to offer the obvious rejoinder.

“Mr. Speaker,” he snapped, “the cheapest politics there is is to call a crisis a career opportunity. This is not. This is about the minister’s performance. The government knows there are not enough isotopes. Today, we learned from the Dutch that if Chalk River is shut down for a protracted period, we will face a disastrous global shortage. The minister’s performance is the failure here. How can she explain that failure to patients waiting for cancer tests who are waiting in vain because of her incompetence?”

The Prime Minister came back loud and apparently proud, first chopping the air, then returning to his finger wag.

“This government has been working since November 2007 to address the delicate situation we have in isotope supply,” he said. “No one has been more prominent in those efforts than the Minister of Natural Resources and her officials who are working around the clock and around the world to address this problem. I wish the member would stop playing cheap politics and help solve that problem.”

Michael Ignatieff shook his head, looking unimpressed.

“Go back to America!” cried a Conservative backbencher.

The Liberals proceeded to David McGuinty. “Mr. Speaker, today on average 62 per cent of Canadians diagnosed with cancer survive. In the 1960s, it was one in three,” he informed. “Survival rates have nearly doubled over four decades thanks to medical advances in cancer testing, rates that depend on daily access to medical isotopes which thousands of Canadians no longer have. How can Canadians possibly believe the Prime Minister is treating this crisis with the competence and the urgency it deserves when the minister, in her own words, is willing to ‘roll the dice’ with the health of Canadians in order to climb a political ladder?”

The government side turned to Leona Aglukkaq, the health minister. “Mr. Speaker, this is a very serious issue,” she offered. “The shortage is a concern.”

McGuinty tried again. “According to the minister her driving interests are her own, not the interests of Canadians,” he said, returning to Raitt. “Given her in ability to comprehend the seriousness of the situation from the outset, her cavalier attitude toward an emerging national health crisis, her lack of faith in the health minister, her failure to secure access to the medical isotopes Canadians need, how can she possibly be left to manage this file?”

Finally, Raitt was compelled to stand. “Mr. Speaker, to review what we have accomplished on this file since 2007, we have undertaken a major study of AECL and we have actually taken a decision on how to move forward with AECL. We have also taken great steps with respect to medical isotopes,” she said, sounding a bit shaky.

“Is that going to help your career?” moaned the NDP’s Charlie Angus from the south end of the room.

“We struck an expert panel to review the submissions that we are receiving on the long term supply. We are working with the United States on a medium term supply and more fundamentally, on the global supply,” she continued. “Once again, I have to correct the leader of the opposition. The Dutch have said they are willing to shorten up their time of being down this summer and further they are willing to put off their time operation until March next year.”

Oddly this did not dissuade the opposition side.

Gilles Duceppe returned to the original sin, the misplacing of that now infamous binder. Ms. Raitt looked to Mr. Harper to respond, but the Prime Minister sat motionless. After a couple seconds, Raitt realized it was now on her and rose to respond.

“Mr. Speaker, as we have indicated with respect to last week, it was a serious matter,” Raitt confirmed. “We took constructive steps in dealing with the issue.”

“Mr. Speaker,” snapped Duceppe with his second opportunity, “this minister isn’t even decent enough to apologize.”

“Mr. Speaker, let us be clear here,” corrected Raitt, “The only people who are interested in political opportunism is the opposition in the sense that they are the ones talking about it.”

Michel Guimond picked up the attack. Aglukkaq stepped in to relieve Raitt. “Mr. Speaker, this is a serious issue,” the health minister repeated. “The shortage is of concern.”

Jack Layton tabled the NDP’s outrage. The Natural Resources Minister was scattershot in response.

Layton pleaded for sanity. “Mr. Speaker, a lot of us in the House and those watching are surprised and shocked that there has not at least been an apology for the remarks that were made,” he fumed. “Not only is the minister losing secret documents, she expected a career bounce as a result of a medical crisis. This is a crisis in a ministry for which she is ultimately responsible. There is nothing sexy about thousands of suffering Canadians on waiting lists for cancer treatment. There is nothing sexy about radiation. There is nothing sexy about losing a family member to cancer. Why will the minister not resign and the Prime Minister accept it?”

Raitt made claim to her own empathy. “Mr. Speaker, for the leader of the NDP to indicate that we do not have any caring on this side of the House is simply a ludicrous statement. Every member on this side of the House has unfortunately been touched by illness, sickness and indeed by cancer. That is what motivates us here in doing and caring for the health and safety of Canadians,” she said, turning solemn. “That is no different in my portfolio. With my officials and the Minister of Health, we are working diligently and very hard on this issue to make sure that we get action done instead of rhetoric, conspiracy theories and personal smears.”

Layton seemed at an unprecedented loss for words. “Mr. Speaker, the minister does not think that it is a moral issue that lives are on the line. However, I can say that every Canadian who is dealing with cancer today does think that it is a moral issue. They are being told that they have to wait in line for diagnosis and treatment. What do we have?,” he stammered. “We have a minister who is playing one-upmanship games with another minister in the cabinet. This is so wrong. We have a minister who wants to roll the dice on an issue that is so fundamental. What the hell is wrong with these people?”

Aglukkaq stood to take this profound query. “Mr. Speaker,” she said, “this is a serious issue.”

Marlene Jennings stood and spoke quietly. “Mr. Speaker, now that the courts have ordered a tape of the natural resources minister to be made public, we know that she saw this national health crisis, one she appears to be unable to manage, as an opportunity to boost her career,” she said.

The Conservative side groaned.

“I cannot believe the minister does not relate to the anguish of Canadians waiting for their cancer diagnostic tests,” Jennings continued. “Would she tell Canadians exactly what she finds sexy about cancer and the devastating impact it has on their lives?

Ms. Raitt would not. “We all take it very seriously and, indeed, being an individual who has had to deal with cancer in my life, as well, in terms of my family members,” she said. “I certainly feel the pain and I certainly feel the empathy.”

“Show it!” cried a voice from the opposition side.

In a momentary break from the interrogation of the Natural Resources Minister, Liberal Rob Oliphant asked the Transport Minister to account for his having told the country’s most populace city to eff off. John Baird stood and informed the House that he’d phoned Toronto’s mayor to offer his apology.

Mr. Harper’s policy on ministerial apologies was left for those in attendance to decipher.

Liberal Carolyn Bennett returned to the unsexy business of the day. The House fell silent. “Mr. Speaker, we heard today from the Canadian Breast Cancer Network that it is appalled by the frivolous attitude and the lack of respect of many elected officials on the severe shortage of isotopes that is affecting Canadians,” she said. “It says the large gaps in the Canadian health care system should not be seen as opportunities to make political points. How is the Minister of Natural Resources able to look in the eye of someone who has just been told they have cancer? When will they get their tests?”

Leona Aglukkaq took this one. “Yes, Mr. Speaker,” she said, “the shortage is very serious.”

Bennett took another turn. “Mr. Speaker, let me put a human face on the crisis for the minister,” she said. “Over 60 times every day in Canada a woman is called back to her doctor’s office and told that she has cancer. She is told that her treatment depends on the results of a bone scan. Right now she is being told that no one can tell her when that bone scan will be. Her treatment will have to wait. In January, the Minister of Natural Resources said she would fix it. Could she explain why the situation is worse than ever, and why women with breast cancer will have to wait? When will they get their tests?”

Raitt stood to answer. “Mr. Speaker,” she replied, “this is indeed a very serious issue for the points put forward by the honourable member.”

The difficult questions persisted.

“How will this government, indifferent to the anguish and anxiety people, ensure that these supplies will be available at all times?” asked Bernard Patry.

“The Prime Minister has embraced his minister with no sanctions whatsoever, so the Prime Minister now owns those words,” charged Ralph Goodale. “Will he tell cancer patients waiting in the queue for the tests they cannot get today in Saskatchewan just exactly what is sexy about their pain and their anguish?”

“Does she not see that the damage done to Canadians’ faith in their government to help them has been suffering by her actions?” wondered Nathan Cullen. “Why is she still here?”

Raitt repeated her assurances. At one point, she accused Goodale of attempting to hide behind her skirt—her ability to crack wise still apparently intact, whatever trouble it’s presently causing her.

But the lingering plea of the day belonged to the NDP’s Mr. Angus.

“Why can’t you just say sorry?” he yelled from his seat beside the far wall as Raitt made one of her responses. “Why can’t you just take responsibility for what you said?”

Neither question would be answered this day.

The Stats. Chalk River, 22 questions. Infrastructure, five questions. Government accountability, forestry and the environment, two questions each. The Aga Khan, Afghanistan, the CBC, equality and trade, one question each.

Lisa Raitt, 13 answers. Leona Aglukkaq, five answers. Stephen Harper and John Baird, four answers each. Rob Merrifield, Jacques Gourde and Jim Prentice, two answers each. Peter MacKay, Stockwell Day, James Moore, Diane Finley and Stockwell Day, one answer each.

The Commons: A thoroughly unsexy day

  1. Ya, what the hell is wrong with these people? Bunch of sans-coeurs; this is ridiculous we need a new governement as soon as possible! I want the glory years of the late 1990's back.

  2. " 'Go back to America!' cried a Conservative backbencher."

    That's pathetic.

    • He had no choice, the Liberals were playing cheap politics…..

      • ha ha that is so rich…

      • what could be lower, more depraved, and cheaper than a lack of empathy for real ppl who face the consequences of yet another manufactured crisis?

        are you even human WDM? that comment is unworthy of you perhaps?

  3. If it had been Leona Aglukkaq on the tape, I bet she would have had one of her own Conservatives lob the question to her so she could get up and apologize right off the bat.

    Of course, she wouldn't have said it. And Ms. Aglukkaq's staff is better at not putting her in this position in the first place, but still, I really like this woman!

    Yes, she has no answer, but she doesn't pretend to have. She doesn't minimize the problem. She doesn't blame others.

    • Hi, Jenn: I also like the demeanor of Aglukkaq, but I didn't watch QP yesterday: were her answers as repetitive and simplistic as Aaron's blog indicates?

      Because if they were, then I am uncomfortable — yes, I'm glad she acknowledges it is a serious issue, but we do need the issue resolved, and faster rather than slower.

  4. This has to be a new low for parliamentary functionality. These last few scandals have brought us to a virtual stand still. Clearly the opposition parties are making their will known on this issue. If the minister weren't so conspicuous in her incompetence she might be forgiven for imagining herself somewhat beyond scrutiny in her personal communications. Now these documents and tapes are before the public, the issues (of her words, her attitudes, her motives, her mentality) cannot be ignored without also ignoring the public outrage. With Harper digging his heels in and refusing, once again, to respect the will of the majority of parliament, and seemingly entirely tone-deaf to public sentiment (quel surprise!) it is clear that this is a dysfunctional parliament, responding neither to its members nor the public they are to represent. This government should be replaced asap, so a new government can resume engagement and legislation on more substantive issues.

  5. I wish somebody could have asked the obvious question of just what she thinks money will solve in all this. Money is hardly going to make the NRU reactor get repaired any faster, nor will it salvage the Maples, especially since there's been no plan on what to do since they were cancelled. I'm sure she's a smart and talented person, but some people no matter how capable can still find themselves simply out of their depths, and it's clear Raitt is out of her depth on this portfolio. With no chance Harper will dismiss Raitt, I think it's time, Ignatieff needs to bring down this government, now.

    • Of course money will solve this. The private sector pixies will flit around in the middle of the night and spread magic fairy dust. Just ask our economist PM.

    • With no chance Harper will dismiss Raitt, I think it's time, Ignatieff needs to bring down this government, now.

      ARX, what do you suppose Ignatieff would to so solve the crisis? Would he wave his magic wand and cause a brand isotope-producing new nuclear reactor to appear? The perplexing thing is that nobody on the Government or Opposition side seems to have actual solutions in mind, when in fact it is these solutions that should be the key focus of discussion.

      • Exactly, and the current government has had 18 months to do something. That hasn't worked.

  6. Doesn't think make you realize that the Harper Conservative and their whole bunch is just brutal as a governement? We didn't have all of this crap with the Liberals.

    • Sure we did. It was just packaged differently.

      • Yeah, it was packaged differently under the Liberals: when the Grits were in power the government's spending wasn't out of control and we had balanced budgets.

  7. Diane Finley, one answer? Man, she must be sleeping tight these days. EI crisis? What EI crisis?

  8. ”Ms. Raitt's brother Colin MacCormack died of lung cancer (caused by PCBs and dioxins,
    she told the Toronto Star's Rick Brennan last fall).
    His death at the age of 37 pushed her to get a master's in chemistry specializing in environmental biochemical toxicology;
    you think she doesn't know that cancer isn't sexy?”

    read G&M/ Christie Blatchford article here:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/colu

    • Actually, that fact only makes the minister look even colder.

    • Blatchford, like you, wilson, is a conservative apologist… she has no credibility on this issue.

      • So, using your logic, one can assume that since you, Wherry, and most of the other red meaters here are LIberal apologists then y`all have no credibility.

        • Y'all? Watch out William, Rosco P Coltrane is looking for you and the Duke boys

    • Blatchford hasn't had anything good to say since the Bernardo trial. I still remember her on a CBC show saying her favourite Canadian word was fuck. Really? It made me wonder if she had actually left the country before.

    • All the more reason she should be more compassionate – no excuses kiddo. Career first not good enough. I bet Raitt's brother had access to all the methods needed – patients today don't.

  9. I would think, Critical Reasoning, that there's really nothing else that can be done now, with the reactor offline, and the Maples presumably mothballed, there's no readily available substitute means of producing them in Canada, and no guarantee that any other country's supply can replace ours, or even be available in sufficient quantities for us to use. What the health ministers and hospital administrators have been doing, trying to find outside suppliers and substitute tests, and the like, is all that can be done in the short term.

    I think the worst part about the government's handling of this is that for all intents and purposes, the handling of this crisis and the rationing and all the substitute tests are really only a stop-gap measure before the NRU comes back online, if it ever does. The Maples were built to replace the NRU, what's their plan been in the last year and a bit since cancelling the Maples, and what has Raitt done since acquiring the portfolio in Nov? In a word, nothing. That's their failure, this government simply stood by until the NRU inevitably broke down again, and that's why this government should fall.

    To be fair, even if on the day of the cancellation of the Maples, had the government announced a new reactor to be built, it probably wouldn't be able to come online until 2011, and would not be a solution to this crisis, but at least that would be a direction to follow. Assuming the NRU is repaired, then breaks down again next year? We've already lost 12-13 months, and the department's been wasting all kinds of time figuring out how to split and sell off half of AECL instead of planning for the NRU's replacement..

    • I'm totally open to the possibility that Raitt has done precious little on this file since taking over seven months ago, but what could she have done to accelerate the timeline of the new reactor? Anything? Would we still be in the same predicament today if Iggy had won a hypothetical election in January? Most likely.

      • I'm not sure I follow, Crit_Reasoning, a hypothetical putting Ignatieff in the same position as Raitt doesn't absolve her of her responsibilities, or her failures. Who's to say the Liberals wouldn't have focused on trying to salvage the Maples, if possible, or build a new reactor, instead of say, preparing for an asset sale? I also agree that we'd be for all intents in the same crisis no matter who would be in power as of January, this future may as well have been foretold since the end of 2007.

        I suppose we're approaching the situation from two different angles, Crit_Reasoning, I see failure and condemn the government for it, but I don't consider it necessary to compare what the Liberals would have done to validate the failure, as if their not responsible if some of their actions would not have been different from what Liberals may have done. I also don't think it's necessary. Gross incompetence, and putting people at risk is an offence upon which any government, of any party, should fall.

        • And who's to say what surprises lay in the Conservative murk that this imaginary Ignatieff government would find? Lets not forget the surprise deficit that Flaherty left Ontario. My money's on more mess in the murk.

  10. Mr. Prime Minister:

    Fire her! And then resign.

  11. She looks like the pressure is getting to her.

    • Yeah, I saw that too, I hate to change the subject but who is asking about the Aga Khan ?

    • After giving a couple of responses off the top, Harper sat tight while Raitt and Aglukkaq took turns answering French questions with English responses. Later on, a planted question raised the subject of the Aga Khan, which was the PM's cue to announce that AK would get an honorary citizenship. This crowd's selective multiculturalism is really creeping me out!

  12. I'm no expert on political games but isn't firing her going to delay the supply of isotopes even further?

    I think she should be given a motivational purpose, like cervical cancer or a compound fracture of the tibia: "We can cure you when you get us some isotopes."

    • I'll ignore the utter tastelessness of your sick little joke and gently remind you that nuclear isotopes assist in the diagnosis, not the cure.

      • You're right, there's no such thing as radiation therapy for cancer patients. My bad. Although I don't in which world does doctors administer a cure before a diagnostic.

        It's alright, I'm not holding it against you. We can't expect conservative partisans to be well adversed in medical procedures.

        • I realize that English probably isn't your first language, so I won't hold your use of "well adversed" against you. I also won't hold your total medical ignorance against you. The use of radioisotopes is diagnostic, and has nothing to do with radiation therapy.

    • It's not as though Minister Raitt herself is working alongside the team of nuclear scientists who are fixing the reactor, and it's not as if her dismissal would have them change that objective, so I can't see why there'd be any delay.

  13. Harper is a discgrace. However, I can see why he kept the clowns in his cabinet muzzled. They are idiots.

  14. As tone deaf as Harper and Co are, their expensive ears are telling them that this is a bomb and that they'll need to pay for it. Step one – by thursday, Raitt will apologize; Step two – Harper will make a dramatic appeal for isotopes, perhaps offering a million dollar of stolen bullion for any 'tope you can scrape together in your homemade 'tope lab. Step three – more attack ads.

    • apology isn't on their minds even though it should have been the very first word uttered from Raitt's mouth the instance this story broke.

      egotistical drama is all that PMStephen is about; not reality; not representation.

      they got caught trying to sell off a profitable part of our nuclear industry. no one thinks that is acceptable–except maybe Fake-Con types.

  15. Raitted R

    Ms. Raitt is wrong, no political issues are "sexy", and Canadian politics is much worse off because of it. Every election we have seems to set a new record for lowest turn-out. Sex sells. Canadian politics doesn't.

    When will the Liberals and Conservatives make Belinda Stronach and Rona Ambrose their respective party leaders and have us determine the election with a swimsuit competition?

  16. I cannot believe the minister does not relate to the anguish of Canadians waiting for their cancer diagnostic tests,” Jennings continued. “Would she tell Canadians exactly what she finds sexy about cancer and the devastating impact it has on their lives?

    Ms. Raitt would not. “We all take it very seriously and, indeed, being an individual who has had to deal with cancer in my life, as well, in terms of my family members,” she said. “I certainly feel the pain and I certainly feel the empathy.”

    “Show it!” cried a voice from the opposition side.

    I find this kind of exchange instructive. The opposition is fixated on getting Raitt to shed a public tear, which given her own history is a cruel way to proceed.

    Iggy should have called this nonsense off. There is no need to bash away at the 'sexy" meme – there is more than enough to criticize on without that.

    • Actually Raitt shedding a tear would do wonders for her public relations. I hope she doesn't. I prefer voters to see her as a callous, ambitious, uncaring wretch who seeks to forward herself through the pain of others and shameless self-promotion. So far, it's working.

  17. Ignatieff has demonstated his total ignorance once again. Sexy is the common business term to describe projects or files that people deem as most desireable and most important; usually top of mind for the company/government hierarchy. Most of you know that but once again want to use triviality to make your statement rather than address the issue. Iggy should know it too but has the same motives, try and vilify the gov't at every opportunity.

    • Many of us know that term the way Raitt used it, but the average voter does not. Frankly, it's not the term she used, it's her ambitious attitude that I think most are upset about. Get over the word; it's the 'tude.

  18. bad acting. a very C movie.

    “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “the crisis of isotopes is very serious.”
    He reassured the nation and enthused about his minister and then returned to his seat. nothing enthusing about all of this. it's a symptom and we the ppl have the cure: withhold support until we see better representation. it's our govt.

    i bet PMStephen's being told to fall on his sword to make way for the new. it makes no sense that he's sitting there tolerating this stupidity. he's cunning. there's more in the mortar besides the pestle.

  19. When did Canada agree to be the main supplier of medical isotopes to the world? We're not the only country that has had to/will have to ration.

    Shouldn't countries like the US be equally responsible for not taking remedial action in the past 18 months to develop new sources. I bet they are now.

    • "When did Canada agree to be the main supplier of medical isotopes to the world?"

      Back when we were a world leader in nuclear technology, when we mattered as a nation globally, when we embraced the idea of 'punching above our weight', and when we weren't so lazy as to rest on the laurels of previous generations.

      • Aha – you're touching on the real story behind all of the noise. How did we manage to fall so far so fast?

        Was it during the Martin/Chretien era when funding was cut significantly, or did it originate earlier, and can/how do we get it back? Maybe it is too late – we do need to sell off or bring in partners. It's not a simple as just throwing money at the problem.

        • Hopefully somebody reading this can fill us in, because your question is a good one. I'm guessing that funding was curtailed as part of the deficit-slaying years, and that nobody noticed or cared as most everything 'nuclear' became politically toxic in the wake of Chernobyl, and with the realization that that aging facilities needed millions or billions to modernize/replace.

          Based on some of the hurdles faced in Ontario with nuclear plants, I'm betting any solutions to this particular problem need lots of money, vision, time (as in a decade or more) and committment – none of which the current economy or fractured parliament provide a fertile ground for.

    • We have a contract with MDS Nordion dating back to when Mulroney spun it off in the name of privatization. It was renewed for 40 years more or less between watches at the beginning of 2006.

      It has nothing to do with leadership and everything to do with staying out of court. It was a court order preventing the Liberals from cancelling the contract that forced the start of the Maples. It was AECL trying to make a name for themselves instead of just building the damn things that doomed their completion. That's cost us in court as well. Currently we're on the hook for another $1.7B from when Lunn cancelled them again.

  20. The person who knew the most about Chalk River and could have been the most helpful in this situation has already been fired.. Ms. Rait should have immediately apologized for her comments. She didn't. She should have informed parliament of the concrete details re steps that are being taken to remedy the isotope shortage. As far as I know, she hasn't done that either.

    Like so many other people, I have a close family member with cancer. Ms. Rait's comments make me wish I could slap some empathy into her, though I know that wouldn't work.

  21. If the oppostion parties are as outraged as they sound why not move a confidence motion? think about it .. otherwise they are all just sound and fury signifying nothing and even worse hypocrites!

    • Nothing to really say, other than to mock your moronic partisanship.
      Raitt screwed up – do you not agree?
      Why not apologize?

  22. Almost all of the radioisotopes produced by NRU are used for diagnostic applications. The only exception is Cobalt-60.

    • The AECL link that Jon provided shows that Iodine-131, Iodine-125 and Iridium-192 have therapeutic uses as well as Cobalt-60, or is the AECL info out of date?

      I recently had the opportunity to 'explore' the use of the Iodine-125 seeds as a possible treatment for my cancer..but maybe it comes from one of the foreign sources.

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