This part of AW’s inquiry into the Australian road tolls scam focuses in particular on Transurban’s recent takeover of the South-East Queensland tollway network (as a model also for trying to convince all Australian governments to adopt ‘universal road pricing’ in Sydney, Melbourne and beyond). It also explores the nature of various claims at the macro as well as micro level that this all constitutes a rip-off, a sting, a rort, and/or a scam (i.e. various and inter-related inappropriate ‘conflicts of interest’) that needs to be challenged as a convergent corporate-governmental-bureaucratic refusal as well as failure of overall accountability at every level.
A scam – “a dishonest way to make money by deceiving people” (Merriam Webster definition)
Macro ‘toll scam’ issues: The link between non-sustainable government-corporate deals on infrastructure ‘sell-offs’ and the slippery slope of wholesale accountability failure
Transurban is a massive machine that feeds in concrete, tar and motor vehicles at one end and spits out money at the other. The more Australians drive, the more profitable it becomes. – Myer (11/2/2016)
Even Jeff Kennett, the man who in effect launched Transurban through its Melbourne CityLink contract in 1996, now warns governments against granting the company more toll road projects, arguing that taxpayers are being “ripped off”. “Transurban people must be laughing absolutely underwater,” Mr Kennett said. “They are a very successful company, they have been very clever in using their intellectual property and powers of persuasion to pull the wool right over the eyes of the government.” – Millar & Schneiders (The Age, 14/5/2016)
Our interest was only ever [owning and controlling] the road network, and the cash – a former Transurban insider quoted by Schneiders & Millar (SMH, 14/5/2016)
The typical bureaucratic abuses of ‘power without responsibility’ (e.g. Scoenbrod, 2008) seem to have worsened along with ever-increasing governmental policy paralysis since the Global Financial Crash a decade or so ago now. In Australia as elsewhere, this appears to also be reflected by a series of hasty and ultimately non-sustainable as well as counter-productive quick-fix or reactionary decisions linked to the current road toll system in Queensland and other infrastructure sectors and related failures of support for local industries. Apart from the bureaucratic rationale for unfair and obstructionist treatments of ‘toll scam’ complaints, the ostensibly valid justification of lower-level Qld Transport ‘customer service’ agents seems to be as follows: they have been told by their superiors or otherwise acting on the ultimately dishonest and generally false assumption that they are really bringing in desperately needed funds for the government, and that the toll-based privatisation of Queensland roads (especially the deal with Transurban) ultimately benefits everyone as part of a needed user-pays economic model of ‘road pricing’.
But as such deals inevitably become exposed for refusals of accountability and as disasters of public interest, those at higher levels of relevant government bureaucracy more directly involved in the process appear to be regularly, intentionally, and disingenuously covering up for incompetence, bad judgment, and hastily careless or even desperately counter-productive decisions. In other words, this might reasonably be construed as higher and greater levels of wilful complicity which on occasions clearly involves inappropriate conflicts of interest (i.e. a bureaucratic not public servant response) and may even involve outright corruption. Transurban employees in Govia customer service have no such illusion at all, and even when their own individual motivation is merely economic or work survival know full well that ‘the deal’ is really about corporate profiteering at the expense of the community as well as government. From a slightly different ‘conflict of interest’ angles, then, Transurban ‘customer service along with Transport ‘public servants’ both seem to be acting as if personally threatened by every individual genuine appeal about unfair and even illegal penalties for non-payment of tolls (as an exemplary focus of challenges to secretive and unreasonable efforts to increasingly charge fees for people to drive on Queensland roads).
In this section we explore in more detail the who, how, and why of the larger macro scam as exemplified by how both Transurban and Transport agents thus tend to obstruct or discourage and even simply deny genuine complaints such as that of my son. We are on record as supporting constructive public-private cooperation where there is genuine corporate social responsibility committed to future sustainability in the wider social and public interest (Richards & Zen, 2016). So our reported conclusions here (i.e. that Transurban deals with Australian governments have tended to be dishonestly unfair, grossly non-sustainable and motivated by cynical profiteering with little or no interest in either real accountability or the greater public good) cannot be so easily be dismissed out of hand also by those who are either naively blind or compromised by vested interests. Likewise, those who would challenge the rationale of our methods should take a closer look (e.g. Richards & Farrokhnia, 2016) – especially in relation to our associated interest in sustainable government policies linked directly to genuine ‘win-win’ practices as well as policies of corporate social responsibility (Richards, 2016; Richards & Padfield, 2016).
In Qld the emergence of a non-sustainable and ill-advised Transurban monopoly (and related privatisation of key Qld roads as tollways) involving various levels of government complicity can be traced back to the Anna Bligh government’s 2009 ‘Renewing Queensland Plan’ to sell off public assets (e.g. Hurst, 26/3/2012). The backlash to this post Global Financial Crash panic was such that both subsequent Labour and Liberal leaders in Qld have promised not to sell off any more public assets. This is despite how both continue to espouse ‘market led’ strategies to attract corporate and foreign investment – culminating in the current government’s formal adoption of a Market-Led Proposals (MLP) framework. Whilst the push for privatisation of public infrastructure also took shape in other states and overseas, as Hurst points out it is quite widely recognised that this government made very hasty and ill-advised decisions often locking the community into non-sustainable as well as costly and unfair arrangements to sell of ‘public assets’– including toll roads. After initially planning a direct sell-off of the government agency Queensland Motorways, the Bligh government then re-packaged this group of tollways (Gateway, Gateway Extension and Logan motorways, Legacy Way, the Go Between Bridge and the CLEM7 tunnel) as part of the Queensland Investment Corporation (QIC). The QIC then ‘auctioned’ off Qld Motorways (subsequently renamed Transurban Queensland) and sold it to a consortium managed by Transurban in 2014 by the next government (e.g. Lynch, 25/4/2014). The new Airport Link was later added at a bargain price (Passmore, 24/11/2015; Pash 24/11/2015).
The fate of the Logan tollway (which should have been fully paid off in 2018 after 30 years of toll payments) in particular exemplifies some of the key implications of the whole process (McKinnell, 28/7/2016). In late 2016 the current Qld government revealed that the Logan tollway had been extended to 2051 (Moore, 27/10/2016). The pretext for condemning Logan, Ipswich and Inala residents as well as anyone else wanting or needing to travel to or via a central area to the South of Brisbane to another 33 years of toll payments (i.e. 63 years not the original 30 years) was that the original agreement had not included upgrades (Wiggins, 23/11/2016). In 2011 when an upgrade project was completed, the Bligh government included this as part of the Queensland Motorways bundle that it put together under the aegis of the QIC. It includes a little-known or hidden clause not only linking any further toll increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) but extending the toll period for another 40 years. Therefore when Qld Motorways was effectively sold off to Transurban in 2014 for just a fraction of its real value, they wanted more funding to cover upgrades to this motorway – since the government had to cover upgrades of the gateway arterial but not this section. In any case, Transurban even later convinced the government to allow them to be able to make increases beyond the CPI (Moore, 27/10/2016). And Transurban’s token CSR gesture of contributing to a community centre opposite the Logan tollway might be regarding as an offensive contradiction of its real corporate social responsibility responsibilities and general accountability.
So without re-negotiating but just simply accepting at face value the Transurban argument that it should be generously compensated, the Qld government allowed further price increases to cover further upgrades and thus additional windfall as well (e.g. Norris, 9/8/2016). This was deceptively rationalised as the first new major project initiative under the current Qld governments new ‘market-led’ strategy of such public-private deals (Duck, 23/11/2016).This was in addition to: (a) how the original $140 million cost of this motorway contrasts with the estimate $400 million a year which go in to the coffers of Transurban/Govia, and (b) how its similarly estimated that motorists have already paid a rough total of $18 billion in tolls for both Logan and the Gateway bridge – projected as 45 times the original building costs (Hodges, 2017). So as well as clearly involving a very large amount of money over the next 30 years that will go mainly to Transurban, you can understand the ‘pain’ of all those who will need to keep paying with little or anything of this money really going into public infrastructure as many think. (e.g. Gould, 1/12/2016). And it appears that users of the Logan and other tollways in Qld will not just have to pay these tolls for another 30 years or so but really in perpetuity or ‘forever’ (unless such highly controversial and clearly dishonest ‘public-private sleight of hand’ deals can be effectively challenged and rescinded, as Jeff Kennett recommends). At the beginning of 2017 there is already a reported ‘half-year profit jump’ in part because of how ‘toll revenue in Brisbane jumped 31 per cent’ the last six months (Hatch, 7/2/2016).
Just as CEO Scott Charlton disingenuously claims that Transurban is not a monopoly “since the government sets toll prices” (quoted by Schneiders & Millar, 14/5/2016), so too the current Qld treasurer Curtis Pitt has also has tried to deflect money gouging complaints about local tolls to the toll operators (Gould, 1/1/2016). This is despite how, as mentioned earlier within the context of secretive agreements which typically involve premium toll fees, “the government gazettes the fees and charges and stipulates the rules Transurban operate under” (Gould 1/12/2016). There is clearly a complicated overall deal also going on between the Qld government and Transurban which both seem keen to conceal or downplay as well as deflect their own role in. This may be because a closer formal scrutiny of both the implicit and explicit aspects of both the general and particular deals still taking place between Transurban and Australian government might inevitably point to possible illegality or at least be perhaps construed as effective corruption. In any case, in addition to the deception that road tolls are a userpays approach to ensuring additional public roads of the future, the general deal of course involves governments using Transurban as initially a management and technology service to deflect and conceal its own budgetary challenges and policy paralysis. Closer inspection reveals how this is at the cost of Transurban charging for this short-term evasion by not only effectively taking over ownership of these roads, tunnels and bridges at a firesale price but permanently locking in the public as well as governments to its windfall profiteering designs.
Likewise, the position of of regular Transurban partner-investor Tawreed is typically downplayed also in Transurban’s Qld takeover. Already previously a part-owner of Victoria’s Citylink tollway, Tawreed is one of the two minor investors who make up Transurban Queensland managed and run by the Transurban corporation. Tawreed is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA). A regular quiet investor in Australia as well as overseas infrastructure such as ports and electricity grids, AIDA/Tawreed also is owner of Australia’s largest hotel chain Tourism Asset Holdings and also NSW’s Transgrid electricity network. It has strict policies to seek out in Australia as well as other strategic parts of the world attractive including bargain ‘cash cow’ infrastructure investments – in similar fashion to Singapore Power’s attraction to Australian electricity networks along with Hong Kong and China-backed groups (Uhlmann, 21/8/2016).
CITI analysts have recognised Transurban as an emerging star on its shortlist of ‘global cash cows’ (Commins 29/5/2015) – clearly the basis of its partnership with Tawreed and other investors. As Commins reports, CITI’s notion of a global cash cow typically shows a disinclination to reinvest for future sustainability. Transurban’s relative disinclination in this respect is listed in the article as a key factor for its investor cash cow rating. This is also typified by a 2016 report (Myer 11/1/2016) which revealed that the previous year Transurban revenues jumped “a whopping 19.3 per cent to $990 million, while earnings were up 14.6 per cent to $729 million”. In the article an independent traffic economist points out how these ‘outrageous returns’ are largely based on the ‘escalation formulaes’ that Transurban ensures are built in to its contracts despite government assurances to the contrary (e.g. the Qld government gave such an assurance about the Logan motorway). As Myer continues, this is the basis for how “tolling arrangements are too generous and there are cheaper ways to provide the infrastructure without over-rewarding”. In any case, this is how ordinary Australian motorists in Logan and elsewhere came to be footing the bill for Transurban CEO Scott Charlton’s reported $6.5 million pay and perks last year (Dagge, 9/8/2016).
It is perhaps appropriate for the Qld government to refer to its agreement with Transurban to take over valuable public infrastructure as ‘concessions’ (e.g. Moore 27/10/2016). This is a term that also has connotations of past colonial and some present ‘third world’ practices of giving away for free or as a bargain very valuable public lands or infrastructure to opportunistic corporate profiteers compromising local communities and their future sustainability. For example, there are the various ‘concessions’ that some South-East Asian governments have given to the very controversial palm oil and logging giant Wilmar. This is another foreign company that the Qld government has shown a complete lack of due diligence towards when allowing them to effectively take over the local sugar industry – with apparently as much interest in the welfare of local farmers (and local economies) as they have regularly shown to dispossessed local farmers and villagers in Borneo and Sumatra.
Jeff Kennett’s various warnings in a May 2016 Herald Sun column to Australian governments about Transurban (i.e. about the very corporation or ‘monster’ he helped create as the Victorian premier who approved the initial opportunist Citylink agreement) provide a useful stepping stone to more directly address the larger question posed here about how the new public-private electronic road toll agreements might be said to constitute an overall set of related ‘scams’. Perhaps further reflecting an associated view of how banks are ‘now running the economy’ in Australia (e.g. Kohler, 6/5/2016), a follow-up Financial Review article (Vesna, 30/5/2016) somewhat narrowly focused on Kennett’s criticism of governments simply allowing Transurban cherry-pick additional ‘windfalls’ at will – a process which has seen them quickly become the 11th largest listed company on the Australian stock exchange or ASX (Mc.Crann, 9/8/2016). On this basis Kennett was further quoted as suggesting that Transurban should agree (or be forced) to return its Citylink concession, and also not be considered for the upcoming $5.5 billion Western Distributor project. Kennett’s related argument was that the government could get cheaper funding itself which would have the inestimable bonus that tolls paid would go directly to it as well as towards future infrastructure (i.e. instead of the ‘total waste’ of just going into the private pockets of Transurban and its investors). He also pointed out how with government complicity Transurban had also been able to charge extortionate ‘premium’ toll rates at will – also generating the many additional ‘billions’ that Miller & Scheiders point out “could have been pouring into government coffers, funding hospitals and schools”.
A closer analysis of the Western Distributor agreement between Transurban and the Andrews Victorian state government provides a useful example of the typically ‘disastrous’ deals other Australian statements governments are also making with Transurban. Transurban pushed the ostensibly reasonable idea that Victoria could benefit from a motorway route to the Western areas of Melbourne as an alternative to the Westgate Bridge. It then further convinced the Andrews government not only about this but that its own deal offer will provide the ‘right solution’. This is that Transurban would pay for two thirds of the overall $5.5 billion dollar project and that the federal government could be convinced or bullied into paying the other third (it has refused to do so).
One hidden aspect of the agreement is that all that Transurban seems to be asking in return, besides effectively permanent tolls going into its coffers starting at the (of course) premium rates of $3 per car and $12 per truck, is a 12-15 year extension on the original Citylink deal approved by the Kennett government. Like the Logan tollway, the other hidden aspect is that just as part of the Distributor project also involves upgrades a not-unrelated hidden clause in the original Citylink agreement allows the Transurban and the Andrews government to effectively further agree to perpetual Transurban ownership and profiteering from tollways in Melbourne – as a basis for encouring more cars on the roads as well as profits at the expense of public transport and related alternatives. As Schneiders & Millar (5/2/2016) has reported this, “The analysis by The Age and transport actuary Ian Bell indicates a 12-year extension would generate $20 billion to $30 billion (nominal) in extra toll revenue”. In other words, even allowing adjustments it should be clear to anyone (and especially Daniel Andrews) that this one deal alone will allow Transurban to profiteer to the reported tune of “tens of billions of dollars”. This puts in relief the kind of profiteering really going on with the Logan and Gateway bridge tollways in Brisbane and elsewhere. Also, although it took some time in early 2017 the state opposition began to question the deal throwing some doubt on it actually proceeding (Galloway & Masnauskas, 9/2/2017).
Millar & Schneider’s (14/5/2016) later article also in The Age focused on Kennett’s related comments that Transurban leaders have ‘mastered the art’ of not just out-manouvring but also manipulating and deceiving governments in negotiations leading to agreements that locked the public as well as their representatives for decades into schemes ensuring those ‘windfall profits’ for Transurban. They mention in passing how a series of key Transurban personnel influencing negotiations (including Tony Shepherd, Alison Croswellor, and Tim Salathiel) since the original director Kim Edwards created the Transurban strategy ‘blueprint’ have all been either directly political insiders themselves or pursuing indirect strategies exemplifying a general conflict of interest. As Millar & Schneider put it, this is all part of a “business strategy is to be the ‘partner of choice’ for government; a friend always at hand with advice and ideas, a kind of corporate-in-residence”. In other words, although Kennett suggests a lack of sufficient proficiency or preparedness by government negotiators there seems to be also a concession that they have also been hamstrung by representatives influenced by a market-led view of public-private agreements which makes little consideration of public interest or sustainability issues. It’s on such a basis then that a fellow former state Premier Carmen Lawrence (2/2/2017) has bemoaned the increasing ‘government failure to act’ in Australia even when there are obvious cases of ‘corporate corruption’.
This dovetails with some other reports that explain further the Transport modus operandi in Queensland and elsewhere. Carey (13/5/2016) has further discussed Transurban’s (2016) strategy to intimidate or simply overwhelm politicians and government bureaucrats involved in future Transport policy-making and planning with a series of its reports that argue that government’s must move to a road pricing mechanism (e.g. Roth, 2008). These reports describe how such a mechanism would seem to be inevitable since petrol taxes can no longer keep up with current projections of future road congestion. What they obviously mean by a future national road pricing mechanism is one that only Transurban can really deliver in Australia – of course failing to mention how most of this will be to generate private profits with short-term infrastructure solutions which will become owned and controlled as a Transurban ‘cash cow’ in the long-run. Thus in their SMH article Schneiders & Millar (14/5/2016) describe how the analysts Morgan Stanley have referred to the Transurban takeover of prime Australian public roads as not just a monopoly but a ‘mega-monopoly’. They further report on how “a senior Transurban executive told a private meeting of investors this month that the company wanted to be viewed as the ‘natural custodian’ of the nation’s motorways, in the likely event of motorists being charged to drive on them”. It is interesting to note that the term ‘robber baron’ – which some might see as an appropriate label for Transurban leadership and its insatiably greedy plans – actually derives from medieval times in relation to the age-old custom of dishonest, unjust, and/or arguably illegal toll collection.
On this basis as Carey further discusses, Transurban are not just participating in but leading ongoing talks with governments about implementing a user-pays model where, in principle at least, Australian motorists should pay for any of their usage of any or all Australian roads in the future (and not just existing tollways). Thus, the pivotal notion of a scam going on here relates to how Transurban has engineered from within (and has been complicitly allowed to do so by governments for a range of ultimately inexcusable reasons) to become a ‘mega-monopoly’ controlling more and more of the main city traffic grids as tollways. In this scheme South East Queensland tollways around Brisbane have become a model for not only a similar stranglehold on the management as well ownership of key road networks and related infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels around Melbourne and Sydney – but in principle all Australian roads and beyond (Transurban also currently owns several North American tollways and clearly hopes to extend that).
Yet Transurban’s disingenuous hijacking of a user-pays argument could be the basis of a much fairer and more sustainable public-private partnership. As indicated earlier Scott Charlton has also similarly denied they are monopoly because government determine tolls – ignoring how they designed these agreements to include hidden ‘acceleration formulae’ and re-negotiations or updating which always seem to benefit Transurban’s expansion as well as profit-making agendas. On its website Transurban claims that it is “committed to best practice corporate governance, transparency and accountability” (https://www.transurban.com/about-us/corporate-governance) – a claim very clearly lacking any genuine commitment to effective corporate social responsibility to the wider society or future Australian transport needs.
Schneiders & Millar (14/5/2016) are therefore likely correct to suggest that “few, if any, countries in the world have allowed a private operator to control so much of their road networks”. In a report for the Qld OPT Review in 2016 (Richards, 2016), we came to a similar conclusion in terms of how Queensland (along with other Australian states) has also led the world with an uncritical ‘legalisation’ of Uber at the expense of sustainable future local taxi industries. It seems in both cases that local politicians and commentators are not aware that the new technologies involved are not as innovative and unique as they have assumed. As with the use of ridesharing apps per se, cloud-based digital vehicle recognition as the basis for ‘electronic toll collection’ should have been approached as part of some new options to support revised public-private models – rather than (as it generally appears) to be some cargo cult carte blanche for a counter-productive as well as monopolistic takeover off such critical infrastructure and/or industries (McLean, 6/12/2016). The two cases are linked in terms of how (as our report explains in detail) a non-Uber ridesharing model in support of a viable integrated response to what are called the critical ‘first and last mile issues’ of using public transport. This also could and should have been the basis for a sustainable strategy for getting cars ‘off the road’ and help stop the emerging dependency and expansion plans for Transurban controlled and owned transport infrastructure in this state. Just as Uber has and promoted the general deception of being a ‘ride-sharing’ alternative to taxis, so too Transurban has likewise hid behind a similarly predatory and monopolistic manipulation of politicians and bureaucrats as well as the public – in this case a deceitful manipulation of the ‘user-pays’ argument and perception that each and every toll payment is actually paying for future roads when they are not at all.
Conclusion: Taking on these 21st Century ‘robber barons’
Ultimately our inquiry here has thus found that the world class Queensland ‘road toll scam’ needs to be understood as a wholesale corporate-government-bureaucratic refusal as well as failure of accountability which has translated into a massive overall betrayal of the Queensland community’s local road and wider transport needs as well as the future of the wider Australian society. This wilful and designed accountability evasion (the sufficient basis for recognising this as an overall scam) has been epitomised by the related firesale sell-off of one of the most important public assets – future Australian roads. Just as the Transurban’s corporate imperative has been (as admitted by Schneider and Millar’s quoted ‘insider’) to simply own and control all roads and make profits from them, so too we have been able to better identify how: (a) governments have become both directly and indirectly complicit in this process for reasons that combine short-term expediency and regular conflicts of interest with apparently little or no concern for the public interest, and (b) how the bureaucrats who translate such non-sustainable agreements and related ad hoc policies as well as decision-making are only incentivized in their work it appears to anonymously yet wilfully and regularly evade and deny accountability at the micro level (i.e. the power without responsibility rationale of bureaucracy as an end itself).
As discussed in the first section, it became clear to us from our personal dealings with both Transport and Transurban customer service representatives that their unhelpful behaviour and responses were all ultimately with awareness that this was unethical, not supported by fair and explicit policies as well as procedures, and in the larger service of money-gouging one way or another. And to the extent that this has reflected the macro level of the government’s non-sustainable, inappropriate and counter-productive deals with Transurban as short-term ‘backsides-covering’ fixes, then the micro level example discussed here has exemplified how that macro level deal might reasonably be referred to as a wilful scam consistent with a typical dictionary definition of “a dishonest way to make money by deceiving people”.
The only sustainable remedy for this or any similar kind of scam is for people to one way or another (and both individually and collectively) demand accountability from all those involved (e.g. Switzer, 13/3/2015). As epitomized by Transurban’s changed response when I directly turned up at their corporate headquarters and promised to keep coming back each week until their customer service actually took up my complaint, corporations today are very sensitive and (many will be surprised to hear) also particularly vulnerable to potential shared information about their possible lack of genuine corporate social responsibility. Even if it was largely motivated as a redemptive admission of earlier mistakes, we think that Jeff Kennett is not only generally well-meaning but strategically correct to insist that Transurban should either voluntarily renounce its current ‘mega-monopoly’ plans or be forced to do so. This perhaps should start with ACIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission) as well as the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) both extending their definitions of inappropriate and even effectively corrupt or illegal ‘conflicts of interest’ to cover this. The whole community (and strategic as well as key representatives) need also to hold to account political leaders who would otherwise tend to make unwise agreements often done in secret or self-evident mistakes at the public expense involving clearly non-sustainable strategies – such as selling off public assets, especially roads, to profiteering forces of privatisation.
Likewise, bureaucratic cultures are similarly vulnerable when particular anonymously-evasive or personally-obstructionist treatments of genuine complaints are personally called out for their unfairness, disingenuity and sheer arrogance as well as for lack of real transparency and general accountability. This is especially so when – as we found in dealings with representatives at various levels of Qld Transport agencies such as TOU – there is a lack or outright denial of consistent as well as reasonable policies and fair procedures. What might be rather encouraged is a much more constructive and sustainable model of public-private partnerships for future roads and transport in Australia. Transurban might still be welcome to participate in this if they really do learn their lesson, mend their ways, and start to practice genuine ‘corporate social responsibility’ which really does benefit the public interest in Queensland or elsewhere. Also, if he is serious about his claim to want to try and address the ‘problem’, relevant government Minister Mark Bailey can and should at least start by demanding real accountability as well as transparency (and genuine customer and ‘public’ service) within and across the agencies of the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Transport. The pressing need for this is reinforced by the calls for real change linked to another current crisis (Caldwell, 6/2/2017) which pales in significance when compared to the importance of future roads.
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