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(en) Anarkismo.net - Struggles Against Neoliberalism in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the 1990s by toby boraman I. (1/2)

Date Thu, 26 Jan 2006 16:31:07 +0200

The Myth of Passivity
From 1984 onwards, Aotearoa/New Zealand experienced one of
the most brutal impositions of neoliberalism seen in the "advanced"
capitalist world. Most commentators claimed that working class
people were passive in the face of a devastating assault by capital and
the state. This pamphlet argues otherwise. Focussing upon the
1990s, I outline the massive demonstrations, strikes, occupations
and other working class activity against the further imposition of
neoliberal reform. I look at three major movements against
neoliberalism in order to learn from their successes and defeats: the
1991 general strike that wasn't; the movement against the benefit
cuts of 1991; and the land occupations movement by Maori in the
mid 1990s.

introduction: capitalism triumphant?

Since 1984, we’ve been subject to an awful lot of economic crap
in Aotearoa/New Zealand. “Rogernomics”,
“Ruthanasia”, “The New Right”,
“restructuring”, “privatisation”, “labour market
flexibility”, “teamwork”: all this has meant working
harder for less pay, longer hours, worse conditions, unemployment,
falling living standards, the rich getting richer, increasing
poverty…Readers are no doubt familiar with the appalling effects of
the “New Right” (also known as neoliberalism), so there is
no need to repeat them here. The “New Zealand
experiment”, as it has been coined, has been noted for its
severity. Aotearoa “out thatchered Thatcher” and adopted
the “most thoroughgoing economic reform in the OECD”,
“free-market reforms more radical than any other industrial

Most commentators think neoliberalism was a devastatingly
successful assault by the capitalist class. Most believe that people
were helpless to oppose it, giving neoliberalism a fatalistic
inevitability: even if people had tried to oppose it, apparently it still
would have gone ahead. They contend capital cleverly used blitzkrieg
tactics to nullify dissent, and assert the working class was allegedly
docile and fragmented in the face “Rogernomics” and then
“Ruthanasia” (the name given to “New Right”
policies in Aotearoa, named after Labour Finance Minister Roger
Douglas and National Finance Minister Ruth Richardson). For
example, Jane Kelsey, author of The New Zealand Experiment, has
claimed there was significant resistance from Maori to neoliberal
capitalism, but little from Pakeha (whites) who were
“passive” and “acquiescent”2:

In a country where welfare ideology was so deeply ingrained,
radical and unpopular change by undemocratic governments might
have been expected to provoke disobedience and disorder. This did
not occur. Most Pakeha were paralysed by the pace and content of
change, confused by the role of the Labour Government, and
trapped in nostalgia for a centralised welfare state that was
disappearing before their eyes. While they felt uneasy about what
was taking place, people generally remained isolated, insecure,
defensive, unorganised and politically inert.3

Similarly, Huw Jarvis in the Trotskyoid magazine Revolution has
claimed that New Zealanders are now passive, disengaged, and
highly individualistic.4 This pessimism is in many respects realistic,
and no doubt contains much truth. I believe that the period from
1984 – when the fourth Labour Government first introduced
neoliberalism in Aotearoa – to today is one of a historic working
class defeat and retreat in the face of a brutal offensive by the
capitalist class. Many people struggled against the imposition of
neoliberalism but were defeated for a complex and intricate variety of

Orthodox leftist accounts of the New Zealand experiment, such as
Kelsey’s, view it through the lens of capital. They look at the
actions of capital, such as “restructuring” the economy,
“rolling back the state” (particularly the welfare state),
cutting wages, smashing trade unions, increasing unemployment
and poverty, and so forth. I attempt to turn this capital-centric view
upside down, and instead view the imposition of neoliberalism from
a working class perspective. I draw upon the autonomist Marxist
tradition, an unorthodox type of Marxism, which stresses the
autonomous self-activity of the working class rather than the power
of capital.5

To bleakly characterise our recent history as an uncontested one is
misguided. For instance, in terms of numbers, the biggest protest
movement in Aotearoa’s history was not the anti-Vietnam War
movement. Nor was it the anti-Springbok Tour protests of 1981. Nor
was it the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s. Nor the various protests
and hikoi held by the Tino Rangatiratanga movement. By far the
largest movement was the wave of protests, strikes and related
actions against the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) in 1991.
Around half a million people participated in this movement. Yet this
movement, which struggled for a general strike, has been written out
of history. There has been virtually nothing published about the
subject,6 while there are numerous publications about the peace,
anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid movements. Perhaps this is because
of the bias of many people who write off class struggle as outdated
and irrelevant

The 1990s, far from being a period of working class passivity,
witnessed a multiplicity of largely working class struggles against the
imposition of neoliberalism. These include the above mentioned
near general strike in 1991 against the introduction of the
Employment Contracts Act and a wave of land occupations by
largely working class Maori in the mid 1990s. Additionally, from the
late 1980s, dozens of unemployed and poverty action groups
mushroomed across the country. Small rural communities in the
1980s and 1990s mobilised in their thousands against the closures of
hospitals, post offices, schools and other services. Indeed, often
entire rural communities turned out to protest against such closures.
The 1990s saw tens of thousands of students protest against the
introduction of student fees at universities, with many occupations
from 1993 onwards. The late 1990s saw significant working class
community based struggles emerge that opposed water privatisation
in Auckland. The Water Pressure Group received much popular
support through its reconnection squads that reconnected water
supply to those homes who refused to pay for the commodification
of water.

Rather than being a comprehensive overview of the resistance to
neoliberalism in Aotearoa in the 1990s, I shall focus upon two of
what I consider the most important periods of working class
resistance. Firstly, I look at the revolt against the introduction of the
Employment Contracts Act and benefit cuts in 1991. Secondly, I
examine Maori struggle against the fiscal envelope – which was
an attempt by the state to settle financially all Maori grievances
going back to 1840 – in the mid 1990s. Both these periods were
possibly the key events during the 1990s that could have developed
into a broader and deeper resistance to capitalism. Certainly, the
other movements against neoliberalism were in their own ways
significant movements in themselves, but unfortunately there is little
information written about them. For example, there is virtually
nothing published about the popular movement against hospital
closures in rural areas, possibly because it occurred autonomously
from the left. I hope that further research will be carried out into the
various unrecorded forms of resistance against neoliberalism.
1991: the general strike that wasn’t

In 1991, the National government prepared to introduce the
draconian Employment Contracts Act and severe benefit cuts at the
same time. These were both designed to drive wages down and
reduce living standards. It was expected that unions and
beneficiaries would put up a tough fight. Capitalists and state
bureaucrats expected a struggle comparable to the Miners’
Strike in Britain – except in Aotearoa, capitalists attacked the
entire union movement in one foul swoop, rather than targeting and
isolating militant unions as was the tactic used against the
Miners’ in Britain. In the end, capitalists were pleasantly
surprised. A mass movement to stop the ECA was co-opted by
union bureaucrats. Learning about our history is crucial. Without it,
we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. There are many
valuable lessons to be learned in the defeat of the anti-ECA

The mid to late 1970s represented the biggest strike wave in New
Zealand history. Workers went on the offensive and gained a number
of victories. An example of this was the massive strike in 1980 at the
Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill in Tokoroa. Such activity was a
significant factor in causing falling profits. The response of capital to
this strike wave was ultimately neoliberalism with the election of a
right wing Labour Government in 1984. Capital restructured to get
out of this crisis and increase profits. By the mid to late 1980s, the
pendulum had swung the other way, with workers forced onto the
defensive in the face of growing militancy from the capitalist class.

In the mid to late 1980s, many firms were closed and many workers
were made redundant. The main objective of unions became
stopping job losses rather than bettering wages and working
conditions. There were many industrial disputes, but most were
defensive struggles over redundancy deals. Some of the larger and
more militant unions attempted to fight back, but were eventually
defeated. Labour introduced a number of changes
(“deregulation”) to employment laws that weakened trade
unions, but Labour was reluctant to openly destroy unions because
of their historic alliance with conservative unions. Nevertheless,
Labour was unsupportive of unions, and excluded, for the most part,
union bureaucrats from the negotiation table.

Figure 1. Numbers of Workers Involved in Strike Activity
in Aotearoa 1945-2002(21)

From 1984 to 1991, there was a considerable degree of strike
activity, much of it in opposition to the labour market
“deregulation” brought in by the Labour Government. In
1985, 182 200 workers were involved in strike activity, the second
highest number since records have been kept (the highest was in
1976, with just over 200 000 involved). As measured by numbers of
workers involved, the years 1984 to 1991 represented one of the
highest amounts of strike activity in Aotearoa’s history, second
only to the period 1976 to 1984, and generally higher than the late
1960s and early 1970s (see Figure 1 ).

Capitalists often employed more militant tactics to overcome these
strikes. Lockouts became more common, such as the lockouts at the
Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill in Kawerau and the Glenbrook Steel
Works in Waiuku in the mid 1980s. Capitalists employed
strikebreakers flown in from overseas and other parts of the country,
as well as company or yellow unions, hiring security firms to
monitor worker protests and protect them from sabotage, and paying
people to campaign against the union that was supposed to represent
them. By the late 1980s, the number of workers participating in
strikes had declined to around 100 000 in 1988 and then 50 000 in
1990. Likewise, the number of working days reclaimed by strike
activity fell significantly by the late 1980s (see figures 1 and 2, ). The
scene was set for one of the biggest changes in class relations in
Aotearoa’s history.

Figure 2. Working Days Reclaimed by Strike Activity
in Aotearoa 1945-2002(22)
the employment contracts act
and the struggle against it

In 1990, the National Party was elected. Unsurprisingly, it took the
neoliberal programme to greater depths and prepared to introduce
the infamous Employment Contracts Act (ECA). The ECA aimed to
force wages down, to deteriorate conditions of employment, and to
smash unions. It was thus both an anti-worker and an anti-union
piece of legislation. The ECA abolished national award coverage and
instead replaced them with individual employment contracts,
contracts that were to be made on a supposedly “level playing
field” between individual capitalists and workers. Under the
ECA, unions did not have any special privileges in representing
workers. The ECA made most forms of strike activity illegal,
including strikes over job losses, solidarity strikes, political strikes,
strikes over sexual harassment and damage to the environment, thus
bringing in some of the harshest anti-strike laws in the
“advanced” capitalist world and comparable to countries
such as China. Unionists were denied access to workplaces to talk to
their members.

At first, the scene looked set for Aotearoa’s biggest industrial
confrontation since the 1913 general strike or the 1951 waterfront
lockout. In the first four months of 1991, public servants, engineers,
teachers, nurses, seafarers, wharfies, steelworkers, railway workers,
shop assistants, cleaners, caretakers, and security guards all took
action against the ECA, mostly in the form of stopworks and strikes.
Huge demonstrations against the ECA were held in many towns.
About 300 000 to 500 000 people were involved in these actions
against the ECA, representing perhaps over a quarter of the entire

The rank and file was in a militant mood: every single union voted
for strike action against the ECA. The bill was opposed by the
overwhelming majority of workers. Attendances soared at mass
stopwork meetings at which there was growing support for a general
strike against the bill. Indeed, many unions almost unanimously
voted for a general strike. For example, the Timberworkers’
Union and Building Trades Union were unanimous in support of
such a strike, and 87% of workers in the Nurses Association voted
for the action.8 Hence for unionised workers the question was not
whether a general strike should be held. Debate centred upon when
it should be held, and how long it should last. Some preferred a 24
hour general strike, some a 48 hour, some a week long. Conservative
unions, such as the Public Services Association (PSA), faced
internal dissent with some individual branches calling for a general
strike against the wishes of the conservative national union
leadership. The PSA national leadership asked them to abandon
their call, and a result some PSA branches passed resolutions of
no-confidence in their leadership. (This later led to a split within the
PSA with the establishment of NUPE). This widespread call for a
general strike was a highly unusual step to take as Aotearoa has only
experienced two general strikes in its history, namely in 1913 and

During the week of action against the ECA of 3-10 April 1991, 250
000 workers participated in some form of action against the bill.9
The week of action was declared by the major trade union
federation, the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). There were strikes
by storeworkers, drivers, seafearers, and steelworkers. Fifty thousand
education workers held a 24-hour strike on April 4.10 Even Inland
Revenue staff in Nelson struck. Wildcat strikes became common.
Wildcats were held by drivers, freezing workers at three different
plants in Northland, railway workers in the Hutt Valley, pulp and
paper workers at Tokoroa’s Kinleith plant, and journalists
associated with the New Zealand Press Association. A headline in
the National Business Review exclaimed, “Protest week could
trigger wildcat strikes”.11 This exemplified the fear of capitalists
that the anti-ECA strikes were getting out of control: they worried
that anger against the bill might lead to more widespread and
generalised wildcats.

There were also rallies and marches across the country during the
week of action. April 4 saw 100 000 people protesting up and down
the country against the ECA, including large attendances in small
towns, which often saw the largest protests they had ever seen. For
example, 1 500 people protested in Whakatane, which represented
10% of the town’s population. A nationwide total of 100 000
people protesting on the streets may sound like a small number to
readers overseas, but in the context of a small population lacking a
popular radical working class tradition, it is a massive number. For
example, it far outstripped the “protest generation” of the
anti-Vietnam War period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well
as the protests against the Iraq War in 2003. The protests against the
ECA represented the biggest mobilisation of demonstrators since the
1981 Springbok Tour. Nationwide anti-Vietnam War mobilisations
attracted a peak of 35 000 people in April 1971, despite the fact the
New Zealand government was one of the few states in the world to
send troops to fight for the Americans in Vietnam.

What is more, a fledging alliance was developing between the
unwaged and waged wings of the working class. Many thousands of
people were out on the streets protesting severe benefit cuts at the
same time, with marches organised by unemployed groups often
meeting anti-ECA rallies on the street on the same day. A militant
and visible unemployed movement was highly active, and caused a
stir with a number of occupations, protests, effigy burnings and the
like (see below for a brief overview of this movement).

The week of action against the ECA put increasing pressure on the
CTU to call for a general strike. Yet on April 18, union officials at
the CTU Special Affiliates Conference card voted 250 122 to 190 910
against holding a general strike against the ECA.12 This move went
against the wishes of the majority of its members. For example, as
noted above, 87% of nurses voted for a general strike, yet the Nurses
Association representative at the CTU meeting voted against a
general strike. CTU bureaucrats wrongly assumed there was
insufficient support to sustain confrontational and effective
nationwide action.13 Most CTU bureaucrats wished to avoid any
large-scale confrontation with capital partially because of their
experience in 1951, when the militant wing of the union movement
was obliterated during the Waterfront lockout. They believed
confrontation would lead to an inevitable defeat and decimation of
the union movement. Yet surely the ECA aimed to do that anyway!
Ken Douglas, the CTU President, ironically said at a time when
hundreds of thousands of people were marching in the streets
against benefit cuts and the ECA that the era of confrontational class
struggle had passed! Minister of Labour Bill Birch praised the CTU
for the “realism” of “positioning themselves to work with
the new legislation”.14

Not only did union bureaucrats reject the call for a general strike,
they also sabotaged the efforts of those who did.15 For example, Bill
Andersen, a CTU bureaucrat and member of the Stalinist Socialist
Unity Party (SUP), prevented or ignored people from the floor
putting forward resolutions to defeat the bill at union meetings.16
John Ryall of the Service Workers’ Federation said, “The
CTU leadership were opposed to doing anything”17 yet to be fair
the CTU did oppose the ECA, and organised a campaign against it,
including protests, strike activity and stopwork meetings. However,
this campaign was mild, largely symbolic, and aimed to cause little
disruption. The most effective way of opposing the bill was a
nationally co-ordinated general strike. Perhaps the ECA could not
have been defeated by even a general strike. But such a move may
have forced the state to retract some of the more draconian proposals
contained in the ECA, and perhaps if the strike was lengthy,
widespread and well organised, it may have actually defeated the bill.

Some of the more militant unions outside the CTU, such as the
Seafarers and the Building Trades Union, called for a general strike.
Their influence was marginal and isolated, however. As a result, no
general strike occurred, and even though pulp and paper workers,
bus drivers, nurses, teachers, some factory workers and some
service workers went on strike, their actions were uncoordinated,
isolated and defeated. These workers were too small in number,
lacked industrial strength, and were often consciously subverted by
the CTU leadership. Furthermore, in 1991 it appears that workers
did not develop their own autonomous organisations in the heat of
the struggle, in contrast to the mid to late 1970s, when strike
committees and rank and file groups sometimes managed to
outmanoeuvre both capitalists and union bureaucrats. Hence it
seems that many workers did not self-organise themselves inside
and outside bureaucratic unions, apart from the ones who took up
unofficial action such as wildcat strikes against the ECA.

On 30 April 1991, 60 000 people across the country – again more
protesters than the biggest days of mobilisations against wars in New
Zealand history – protested against the imminent enactment of
the ECA. On May Day, massive rallies were held. On May 3, the
government passed the ECA whole and unchanged. The
Prime-Minister, Jim Bolger, went on an overseas trip and apparently
skited to foreign politicians about how they had successfully imposed
the act, a reform that in other countries would have been virtually
impossible to enact.

Sue Bradford claimed, “I think the CTU bears huge guilt for
having not allowed the people to do what they wanted to do [i.e. hold
a general strike]…Groups like ours were having massive
demonstrations at the time, there was tremendous public opposition.
So it wasn’t that the people didn’t want to fight.”18
Bradford, then a Maoist involved in the Unemployed Workers
Rights’ Centre in Auckland, said she could not understand why
the CTU subverted the struggle of “the people.” As with
most leftists and Leninists, she assumed that the problem during
1991 was a crisis of leadership. The CTU bureaucrats were
“bad” leaders, and needed to be replaced by “good”
leaders. Yet trade union bureaucrats, just like Labour and Alliance
politicians, have helped institute neoliberalism and subvert
resistance to it not because of the commonly held view that they are
corrupt, undemocratic, or just plain bad people. Instead, a more
feasible explanation for their behaviour is simply because they are
dependent upon, and attempt to facilitate and mediate, capital
accumulation.19 Union bureaucrats act as mediators of wage labour,
recuperating workers’ struggles outside of their control – and
the control of capital – in return for gaining limited benefits for
workers and a say in the state management of industrial relations.

For union bureaucrats of the period, the key was to have some say in
the state management of industrial relations. Indeed, Douglas –
also a member of the Stalinist SUP – said in 1991 that unions
had to face the realities of “global competition,” which
basically meant that he wanted union members to accept the reality
of “restructuring” in the faint hope that union bureaucrats
could gain an ear at the negotiation table to soften the effect of mass
layoffs a wee bit. This offers an explanation why CTU bureaucrats
opposed the general strike. Because they wanted to be a partner in
government, they did not wish to appear to be too radical and
support confrontational mass direct action such as a general strike.
However, this hope was forlorn since by 1991 most capitalists and
politicians simply did not want to negotiate with union bureaucrats
anymore but instead explicitly desired to smash the power of unions
altogether. This was essential in capital’s drive to force wages
down and increase profits.

After the ECA was enacted, wages fell immediately for most
workers. Union membership declined dramatically. The union
movement split. Strike activity became almost non-existent. The
1990s saw the lowest amounts of strike activity since the quietude of
the mid 1950s to mid 1960s, the alleged “golden era” of
welfare state capitalism. Numbers of workers involved in strike
action fell from 26 800 in 1992, to 7 600 in 1997, to 2 600 in 2000,
before jumping somewhat to 23 000 in 2002. In comparison, an
average of around 15 000 workers went on strike per year between
1954 and 1961 (see Figure 1, below), a decade characterised as one
of bleak conformity in most histories. Hence it seems that the ECA
was devastatingly successful in outlawing strikes, reducing wages
and increasing profits for capitalists. However, to rely solely upon
statistics that examine strike activity ignores informal, everyday
forms of class struggle in the workplace, as well as forms of class
struggle that occur outside of the workplace. It is noticeable that
much of the resistance to neoliberalism after 1991 shifted to the
community rather than the workplace. As Curtis Price notes, many
workers under neoliberalism no longer use strikes as weapons of
resistance because capitalists use “replacement workers” to
take the jobs of strikers. Instead, it is likely that workers make more
use of informal, everyday resistance on the job through using such
tactics as go-slows and the work-to-rule.20 Indeed, in the United
States work-to-rule tactics increased in the 1990s while strike
activity decreased. No doubt informal workplace resistance plays an
important and fertile role in class struggle. Unfortunately, in the
absence of statistics and studies about informal resistance, it is very
difficult to quantify how much resistance of this type occurred in
the movement against the benefit cuts

Unemployment soared in the mid 1980s to well over a quarter of a
million people. In response dozens of unemployed, beneficiaries and
poverty action groups sprung up across the country, not only in the
large urban areas but also in provincial and rural towns.23 These
groups organised many small actions to highlight the fate of
beneficiaries. A nationwide march was held by unemployed groups
in 1988. Unemployed groups became increasingly “militant”,
and in 1990 occupied the Wellington headquarters of the capitalist
lobby group the New Zealand Business Roundtable (the NZBR
suggested many of neoliberal reforms before they were
implemented) as well as the Auckland offices of the Treasury
Department (the government department responsible for
implementing neoliberalism). This was in protest against punitive
cuts to benefits for young people, the sick and the unemployed, as
well as work tests for solo parents.

In 1990, the National Government announced it was intending to
make sweeping benefit cuts in 1991, an announcement made at the
same time as that of the ECA. In 1991, National cut social spending
by one third. It savagely cut the rates of all benefits, including the
invalids and sickness benefits. The harshest cuts were for the
unemployed. The unemployed benefit was cut by 25% for young
people, 20% for young sickness beneficiaries, and 17% for solo
parents. They abolished the family benefit and made workers
ineligible for the unemployment benefit for a stand down period of
six months. These represented the harshest attacks upon
beneficiaries since the depression of the 1930s.

This produced an upsurge in working class self-activity. For many
beneficiaries, it was simply a matter of survival. People could not get
by on the meagre benefits they received. Beneficiaries had to cut
back on essentials like food, clothing, electricity and so forth. In
response, unemployed and beneficiaries groups provided green dollar
barter systems, free services and health clinics, worker education,
food co-ops and other services in an attempt to build some form of
self-help or mutual aid. Unemployed groups across the country
organised huge marches against the cuts. For example, at the same
time large marches were being held against the ECA, the Auckland
Unemployed Group organised a huge “march of Anger” in
Auckland. Effigies of various ministers were burnt, and the
demonstration encouragingly developed into a near riot as thousands
of protesters rampaged through Queen St., temporarily occupying
many businesses including McDonald’s and banks (without
doing any property damage).

Because the benefit cuts occurred at the same time as the ECA,
much co-operation developed between unions and the unemployed
groups. Initially, there was tension between unions and unemployed
groups. The CTU established its own unemployed groups under its
control, as it distrusted the national unemployed network, Te Roopu
Rawakore o Aotearoa, for being too militant. Nevertheless, in 1990
the CTU formally recognised Te Roopu Rawakore. Unions gave
resources, funding and other help to the unemployed groups, while
the unemployed groups reciprocally supported the various actions of
the unions against the ECA. However, there was still some
suspicion of groups opposing the benefit cuts. For example, some
called for the CTU to support broad based community coalitions
against the ECA and benefit cuts, but the CTU refused to endorse
such a coalition.24 When the movement for a general strike was
quashed, the informal co-operation between individual unions and
unemployed groups instantaneously disappeared.

As a result, unemployed groups became increasingly isolated. Some
groups became more militant in response, and attempted to keep
organising large marches and occupations against the benefit cuts.
However, these actions became increasingly unpopular, and
eventually petered out. In Auckland unemployed people occupied
the front lawn of Michael Fay’s opulent residence and even took
a dip in his swimming pool – Fay was an influential financial
capitalist within the NZBR and a prominent public figure because of
his backing of the America’s Cup yachting. The state decided to
attempt to repress the unemployed movement through arresting
people they viewed as key activists, culminating in a brutal police
raid on the Auckland People’s Centre, which housed the
Auckland Unemployed Workers Centre, in 1992. The raid was based
upon trumped up charges that bombs were being manufactured at
the centre.

In addition to external suppression, the unemployed movement split
in 1991 in a bitter internal feud. The strength of the unemployed
movement was its autonomy from any one political party or
bureaucratic union; Maoist parties such as the Communist Party of
New Zealand and the Workers’ Communist League (WCL)
attempted to control the movement, but in the end failed. In 1991,
the Maoists from the WCL including Bradford and her allies left Te
Roopu Rawakore, leaving it to anarchists and their allies.

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