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The Peta Principle – how Abbott rose to the level of his incompetence

By Ad astra

‘What’s wrong with Tony Abbott?” It’s a question that’s been asked ever since he rose to prominence as party leader, if not before. But then the question had a whimsical ring about it. What was wrong with a leader who was so nasty, so misogynist, so belligerent, so hell bent upon the destruction of his enemies? People had their answers, answers that went back to his early days in student politics. We wrote about it on The Political Sword in late 2009 in The pugilistic politician. The conclusion was that this was Abbott’s nature, malevolent though it was.

Over the years we have seen a man who rose from ministerial ranks to opposition leader where he was deemed to be competent, to prime minister where he was manifestly incompetent.

Abbott’s rise is a classic example of a management principle enunciated by Laurence J. Peter in his famous 1969 book: The Peter Principle, in which he asserted that as managers are promoted, they “rise to the level of their incompetence.” We have written about The Peter Principle before.

Let’s trace Abbott’s path. The media was lavish in its praise for his performance as opposition leader, some going so far as to assert that he was the best ever, presumably arguing that aggression, confrontation, adversarial behaviour and ceaseless negativity were the preferred ways to electoral success. Murdoch journalists particularly barracked for him endlessly. Defeat of the detested Labor government and the installation of a grown-up, adult Coalition government was all that mattered; the means, no matter how ruthless, were irrelevant.

So it came to pass. The tacit assumption, rarely ever challenged, was that Abbott’s electoral success would translate into success in government. Some of us challenged that assumption, but who was listening?

Back as far as July 2011 we plumbed the forbidding prospect of an Abbott prime ministership on The Political Sword in If Tony Abbott were PM, and again in August 2013 in Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott, we predicted the disaster that Abbott would become in government. The media though, and much of the public, were sanguine. The right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, now had their puppet captive in the most powerful position in the land. It soon filled Abbott’s policy free zone with a list of 75 policy suggestions.

Then along came his actual behaviour as prime minister.

We observed it month after awful month. Many could see a dysfunctional pattern developing as Abbott tried to apply to governance the strategies that got him elected. He seemed not to see that different strategies were needed in government; he seemed to think that persistent negativity would again win the day for him. Some columnists were prepared to point this out, but the Murdoch media continued to be his advocate, making excuses for his increasingly aberrant behaviour, hoping to see some change towards effective governance. It never came. Eventually, even News Limited journalists started to show doubts, and gave subtle warnings to Abbott. But excuse making continued, hoping that soon Abbott would wake up.

There was one journalist though who wrote regular columns in The Australian, Niki Savva, who did begin to express reservations about Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.

Now Savva has put the cat among the pigeons with her just-published book: The Road to Ruin – How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government. Even the title is revealing: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own Government. Savva’s story shows how Credlin believed it was as much her government as Abbott’s. Herein lies the clue to the most extraordinary relationship that came about between Abbott and Credlin, one that achieved success in opposition but lamentable failure in government.

Although Savva’s book has been available only this week, the published excerpts and the media comments of the author and her interviewers provide enough detail for preliminary analysis.

It is not the purpose of this piece to explore whether the relationship between Abbott and Credlin was sexual in the sense they were sleeping together. Some feel affronted by this possibility; most are more concerned with the deeper relationship where Credlin seemed to have an overweening influence over Abbott, a relationship where Abbott seemed dependent on her for advice, strategies and instructions about how to run government day by day. Credlin insisted she got Abbott and the Coalition into power and that Abbott could not run the government without her. Moreover, she believed that what worked in opposition would work in government. The pattern of behaviour continued. What she failed to comprehend was that Abbott, and perhaps she too, had been promoted to their level of incompetence.

Many were worried about her tactics and her influence. Those close to Abbott were concerned, even apprehensive about her, and the way she manipulated him. Savva documents these concerns in a number of on-the-record statements ministers, backbenchers and public servants made to her. So angry and frustrated were they about Credlin’s autocratic behaviour that they were prepared to put their name to them.

What then went wrong with Tony Abbott?

Clearly, he was profoundly influenced by Credlin, dependent on her advice, and needed her instructions about what to say and how to say it. What he did not realize was that her advice was no longer relevant now that he was Prime Minister.

He wanted her to be close to him in meetings, even with international dignitaries, willing to let her run the political show, even foreign policy, happy to let her decide on his appointments, his appearances, even small details of protocol. He allowed her to micromanage his office and his cabinet, to interact with his staff, his ministers and with public servants, to instruct them, even about staff appointments, and to discipline and bully them if they disobeyed or disappointed her, sometimes in an undignified way.

Credlin’s behaviour repeatedly evoked adverse reactions and anger, among even senior people, many of whom she treated with disdain. Many of these have ventilated their longstanding resentment and frustration in Savva’s book. Many sought her removal, but Abbott would have none of that. His attachment and dependency were too great. Likewise, senior party figures warned Abbott, and at the time of the February 2014 spill advised him to get rid of Credlin. Rupert Murdoch demanded, nay ordered Abbott to sack his Chief of Staff. The advice was never heeded.

Abbott allowed Credlin to run an insular, secretive PMO that excluded many, where she overplayed her hand repeatedly, where she was dominantly in charge.

Unquestionably, she is a prepossessing woman: intelligent, accomplished, assured, and overbearing. No doubt it would have been difficult to control her, to hold her back. But it was Abbott who was selected to lead the government, not Credlin. He ought to have been in control. In Say no, no, no to Abbott, it was postulated that in government Abbott would exhibit conflicting attributes: vengefulness and weakness. He has certainly exhibited vengefulness that all can see. But only now are we seeing the depth of his weakness. Unable to govern himself, he was so weak that he handed over governance and many of his prime ministerial functions to his Chief of Staff: he openly referred to her, and it seemed, increasingly deferred to her as the ‘Boss’. The fact that this person was a woman is immaterial; it is the fact that he recklessly handed away his responsibilities to another that is reprehensible.

What is astonishing is that the work of government could be so readily handed over to a non-elected person by someone like Abbott, who shows so much machismo, who flaunts his masculinity, who enjoys so much playing the tough guy, tough enough to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin.

Behavioural psychologists and psychiatrists would relish debating the Abbott/Credlin relationship, and attempting to attach a diagnostic label.

I will not try to emulate them, but even the untrained must be asking themselves what sort of behavioural problem, what sort of psychiatric condition each might have, and what sort of pathological relationship they might have had.

‘Emotional dependence’, where an individual can’t make decisions without the other, springs to mind. The influence of Credlin is reminiscent of that of Svengali, the evil hypnotist in the novel Trilby by George Du Maurier. Colloquially, ‘a Svengali’ is used to describe a person who completely dominates another, usually with selfish or evil motives.

Whatever the psychiatric diagnosis might be, there is no doubt that Savva’s book documents the intensity and extent of the relationship that existed between Credlin and Abbott and its awful outcomes that proved to be so counterproductive and injurious to them both and destructive to the government they led.

This situation is more fitted to the drama of the theatre than to real life day-to-day politics, yet there it was under our very noses, at the pinnacle of our national government. How could such a situation have ever arisen? We have seen dysfunction in our federal government before, but nothing like this!

Who is to blame? While some point the finger at Credlin, clearly Abbott is the culprit. He was the prime minister, the one in charge. He should have been calling the shots. We at The Political Sword pointed out long before Abbott became prime minister that he would be a dud should he get that job. It was only when he got it that it dawned on him that he wasn’t up to it, and so he turned to Credlin. Too inexperienced for national governance, Linus-style, Abbott reached out for his security blanket – Peta Credlin. Sadly for him, and the nation, she could not rescue him from his own incompetence. Together they resorted to opposition tactics and wrecked the government.

An even more bizarre twist to this story is that Abbott, along with some of his sycophants, still hold out hope for a second Abbott government, an exercise in delusion of monumental proportions. Well connected people in Canberra predict that if Abbott tried to topple Turnbull, he’d be lucky now to get even a tiny handful of votes; Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Peter Dutton, Andrew Nikolic et al – the so-called ‘Monkey Pod’- are likely all who are still waving Abbott’s flag.

So let’s not engage in speculation about whether their relationship was sexually intimate. It matters not. The only conclusion that is tenable is that Abbott was incompetent and insecure as prime minister. He was a dud; he did not know how to govern or how to consult; he did not know how to assume the vast and widely variable responsibilities of his position.

In a classic illustration of the Peter Principle, Abbott had risen to his level of incompetence. He turned to the only one he thought could save him, Peta. But she too was a victim of this same principle; in her case, let’s call it the ‘Peta’ Principle. She had risen to her level of incompetence. She couldn’t save him and didn’t. End of story!

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. Lee

    I don’t think Abbott allowed Credlin to control him, rather they were two peas in a pod and he allowed her the freedom to treat others as he does. He’s a known head kicker from way back. When he got into government he continued to behave as if he was in opposition. I think Abbott is clueless about appropriate behaviour. He doesn’t see anything wrong with his own, so why would he recognise it in his Chief of Staff? If Credlin was a more likeable person I still can’t see Abbott going the distance. He’s a complete tool in his own right and there have been many valid criticisms of him, resulting in his loss of popularity with the electorate, that had nothing to do with Credlin.

  2. lawrencewinder

    St Augustine decided that in trying to define God it was simpler to delineate what God was not. The same is the case with Rabid-the-Hun. It’s not a matter of asking What’s wrong with him but a solution will be more quickly reached if you ask, What’s right with him?.

  3. Wally

    Andrew Bolt has put his own spin on the book “The Road to Ruin”.

    Vile attack on Peta Credlin and Tony Abbott stinks of hypocrisy

    THE smearing of Peta Credlin in a new book as a hysterical control freak who probably slept with Tony Abbott has backfired. This vile attempt to destroy Credlin, chief of staff to Abbott as prime minister, has instead exposed the author as a self-confessed liar.

    More importantly, it has exposed the ABC as two-faced and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a small man gripped by hate.

    Credlin is the target of journalist Niki Savva, who obsessively attacked her as a columnist on The Australian and now savages her in her book, The Road to Ruin, purporting to explain why the Abbott government fell.

    For Savva, the key failure of that government was the relationship she repeatedly calls “weird” — between Abbott and the tall and striking Credlin. There is little doubt of what Savva is trying to suggest. She doesn’t just portray Credlin as an abusive, temperamental and teary martinet, but as a domineering married woman in an unhealthily intimate relationship with her pussy-whipped boss.

    Savva quotes anonymous people claiming Credlin fed Abbott at dinner with her own fork and that he in turn gave her a playful slap on her bottom.

    And to put a label on the smear, Savva quotes NSW Liberal conservative Concetta Fierravanti-Wells telling Abbott last year he had to dump Credlin because “rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff”.

    It does go on if you can stomach it follow the link.

  4. MalleeMan

    What’s happened to all the i’s?

  5. Barry Riley

    Abbott was good with three word slogans that could help manipulate the less informed voters, perhaps learned from his reading of Goebbels’ propaganda methods. I always thought the party was using him as a sort of battering ram to break down the doors of Parliament for them, and that, knowing his incompetence, they’d dump him as soon as they got in. Sadly they didn’t dump him until it was too late and he’d damaged their party image beyond repair. The link in the article to the IPA’s wish list is scary reading, especially knowing these are the controllers of the Liberal party

  6. Kaye Lee

    The eye’s have disappeared….how odd.

  7. diannaart

    Thanks Wally, you have filled my Bolt-quota for the next 2 years at least.

    Agree with Lee, Abbott was not so much manipulated as he was reinforced in his existing world-view by Credlin – each thrived on the other. Truly a match made in hell.

  8. AllRaj

    what has happened to all the ‘i’ characters in the above comments?

  9. diannaart


  10. diannaart

    Test worked – CapItal “I’s” not ditched.

  11. Michael Taylor

    No, we haven’t been hacked. I’m guessing that it’s something to do with a new WordPress update. I’ll email our developer to see what’s the problem.

  12. diannaart

    Thanks Michael

  13. Carol Taylor

    Excellent summary Ad Astra. I tend to think that being emotionally immature Abbott also saw Credlin, an imposing woman, as flattery to his ego. Abbott tended to flaunt her in a similar way to which he at times flaunted his daughters.

  14. Michael Taylor

    All fixed. The i’s are back. It was a problem with the WordPress update. Normal services have now resumed. 🙂

  15. Clean livin

    Wally. You are a brave man quoting Bolt. You are admitting to listen / reading his nonsense.

    Only by accident gave I come across him, but quickly turned off the TV in case the defication remained!

  16. Clean livin

    Sooner or later it will make a great movie of TV series, for ABC, and won’t he Libs scream Blue Murder!

    Can’t wait! (To hear the Libs., that is!)

  17. Ross in Gippsland

    Make a great thesis for a psychiatric PHD more likely.
    Uncle Rupes tells his best buddy Tones to dump his dominatrix, but Tones can’t and won’t, because he can’t run the government without her.
    Says a lot about the appalling standard of our political class that this went on for two years.

  18. guest

    For me Abbott will always be a clown on a bike dressed in lycra, riding about and dressing up in tradies’ clothes and hard hats, when he should have been looking to policies which were substantially more than destroying anything achieved by Labor.

    As well, Abbott would have destroyed himself no matter who was Chief-of-Staff. His real crutch was the IPA with its links with US Right wing political thinking. Just look at the Trump recipe for undoing Obama.

    Now we have the Coalition so frozen in inaction because they have no clear vision of what to do next. Some of them want to be agile and innovative, while others are not interested in doing anything more than ride a bike.

  19. diannaart

    … Abbott would have destroyed himself no matter who was Chief-of-Staff

    Without a doubt.

  20. Wally

    Clean livin

    Sorry the headline sucked me in and I had to see what crap Bolt would come up with to defend Abbott. The attack on Savva was so predictable but then to claim there was a conspiracy from Turnbull’s office just stacked the crap far too high.

  21. Peter F

    With the stupidity and alarmist statements coming from Turnbull and his ministers, it would appear that Peta was NOT responsible for Abbott’s behaviour. I am beginning to wonder.

  22. win jeavons

    I have been waiting for some-one to say”Svengali”. The gender is irrelevant.

  23. Wally

    Just when I thought it was safe to read some headlines this popped up.

    Former prime minister John Howard urged Tony Abbott to get rid of his chief of staff Peta Credlin

    FORMER prime minister John Howard has confirmed he urged Tony Abbott to remove Peta Credlin as his chief of staff.

    Howard’s confirmation will be aired in an exclusive interview with Sky News Australia’s Political Editor David Speers tonight at 8pm AEDT.

    The announcement comes after it was previously revealed that Mr Abbott had been warned that the perception that he was having an affair with Credlin was damaging his role as prime minister and that he needed to sacrifice her to protect his government.

    Liberal MP Concetta Fierravanti-Wells confronted Mr Abbott about the issue on the eve of the spill in February last year.

    “Politics is about perceptions,’’ Senator Fierravanti-Wells told Mr Abbott.

    “Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff. That’s the perception, and you need to deal with it.’’

    Poor Turnbull barely gets a mention with previous Liberal leaders stealing the headlines.

  24. You can't be serious?

    I have been decryring the attrocious Abbott for years in comments. letters to the editor and in person, based on his behaviour, policies and utterances both pre and during his PM’ship. It was a tough gig to get a critical letter published in the only (very conservative) paper in WA.
    Whilst I had plenty of direct evidence to go on, about Abbott, I had no such about Credlin – other than the reports in the press, that she was exercising iron control over the PM’s office and much later the grumblings about her shortly before the first spill motion. I recall the first leak against Credlin were the 2013 reports not that long after the election, that Ministers were forbidden to make public announcements without the PM’s office’s prior approval.
    I was extremely concerned when it was reported last year that at a Credlin speaking event, she asserted that she got the Government elected! Suggesting that she was in charge of how and what things were done and not Abbott and that that was likely to be continuing in Government.
    So much for Cabinet process and collegiate decision making.
    It seems the lily livered Ministers went along with an unelected person running the Country, totally contra to our system of Government. Happy to abdicate their responsibilities as Ministers to stop this amazing hand over of power to Credlin. So long as their positions were secure. And at least initially what was not to like – Credlin’s ideas and policies were clearly right up most of their far right wing alleys.
    Credlin bears no less responsibility for this fiasco IMO because she is not an elected representative. She has no duty to the electorate or to Parliament. While Abbott and his Ministers did. The Liberal power brokers who knew what was going on and did nothing – are numpties – and of course one of them was Credlin’s husband so ‘nough said. How inept and ill-judged if they wanted their party to be re-elected.
    The backbenchers did at least express their disquiet earlier – but hard to know whether that was all about saving their own positions or involved some concern about proper Government process and democratic principles not being followed ie an unelected person in control of the Government!
    Shame on the whole rotten bunch of them.
    Shame on the Australian people for being too stupid and gullible to not have read the writing on the wall writ large, well before the election – that Abbott was unsuitable, most of the shadow cabinet were right wing extremists or yes people or both and his (Credlin’s) policies were extremely right wing and would be damaging to their and Australia’s long term interests.

  25. S

    The moment I read about the phrase “the adults are in charge” I knew we were in for a torrid time.

    I cannot for the life òf me understand why employees would vote for the LNP, let alone Abbott, but it seems that the yanks are about to do the same thing.

    I supose I should not be surprised there has always been bullies and they have always got followers and they always get people to vote them into positions of power, like the prefect, the head boy/girl, the Leading Hand, the forman, the manager etc, etc.

    The truth is that it has always been that way, since the days of trial by combat.

    I honestly believe that Abbott is a sick man, he realy does need help, and by all accounts it looks like his Chief of Staff might need some help too.


  26. SGB

    You cant be serious

    Well said

  27. diannaart

    Watching and waiting to see if Credlin will be a scapegoat of convenience.

  28. Geoff Andrews

    Mr Bolt’s precis of the book appears to be:

    “She doesn’t just portray Credlin as an abusive, temperamental and teary martinet, but as a domineering married woman in an unhealthily intimate relationship with her pussy-whipped boss.”

    I was wondering when that epithet would rear it’s ugly head:been tempted myself but backed off, fearful of a torrent of incredibly well written tut-tut’s from all of my favourite AIMN writers and commentators, a few of whom argue that the criticism of Credlin is sexist.
    As a point of interest, I wonder if attaching Mr Bolt’s non-PC description to Abbott is sexist particularly if it’s the truth.

    Could it be the truth?

    Well, if you believe the “wild sexual affair” deniers, theirs was apparently the longest running public, unconsumated flirtation in the last 100 years: a situation that could easily replicate the symptoms of a full-blown sexual relationship: a condition known as psychological priapism, very common in adolescent males.Maybe he never grew up. Maybe it’s the Peter Pan Principle


  29. astra5

    Good Evening Folks
    I’ve been away from my computer all afternoon, so have just now read your comments.

    I thank you all for them. They have added depth and further insights into the saga of Abbott and Credlin, which will continue to intrigue commentators until they find something more interesting. With all that is going on in Canberra right now, that might be quite soon.

    It is Abbott’s lack of insight into his own behaviour, and that of his Chief-of-Staff, that astonishes me. I hope that separately or together they write their own version of the events that shaped their party in opposition and government. There has been talk that Peta Credlin might be preparing to do so. It would give readers insight into how their minds worked. How politicians think and reach decisions is a fascinating study. Abbott and Credlin could thereby make a serious contribution to cognitive psychology in politics.

  30. gangey1959

    He’s a pom. With pretensions of royalty. Or being god.

  31. Peter F

    If only he HAD stayed in the church – with similar results.

  32. Lee

    “Poor Turnbull barely gets a mention with previous Liberal leaders stealing the headlines.”

    That’s a good thing for Turnbull so close to an election because he is useless too.

  33. Lee

    “I cannot for the life òf me understand why employees would vote for the LNP, let alone Abbott, but it seems that the yanks are about to do the same thing.”

    They appeal to the bogan element with their racism and bigotry. Trump has even more appeal because he loathes free trade agreements and he wants companies to return their manufacturing base back to the US, which is very appealing to Americans given their unemployment problems. I expect that it’s too late to do anything about those agreements already signed, but he will get a lot of support on that issue.

  34. mars08

    @Lee… what’s hilarious is the big bucks that Trump has made from using migrant labour and outsourcing.

  35. Lee

    True, yet conservative voters seem to be good at forgetting about all of the hypocrisy.

  36. terry

    what would Hitler do , abbott

  37. Wally


    Can hear the knives being sharpened.

  38. Matters Not

    I expect that it’s too late to do anything about those agreements already signed

    Not really!

    Following a signing ceremony on February 4 in New Zealand, the Obama administration is calling on the GOP-controlled Congress to hurry up and approve the massive “free-trade” regime known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Despite fierce opposition and the ongoing presidential primaries, Obama’s Trade Representative, Michael Froman, said he was confident that Republican lawmakers would comply with the White House’s demand in the months ahead, warning of “economic consequences” if Congress did not make haste. At this point, though, approval appears to be far from certain.

    Dubbed “Obamatrade” by critics, the deeply controversial treaty has opponents up in arms all across the political spectrum, despite support from the establishment wing of both parties. Conservatives have blasted, among other elements, the agreement’s full-blown assaults on national sovereignty and self-government. Liberals, meanwhile, are decrying what they view as a lack of serious protections for labor, the environment, and more. On both sides of the political spectrum, opponents also worry that the scheme could facilitate a stepped-up exodus of U.S. jobs, businesses, and manufacturing.

    There’s still some way to go and approval appears to be far from certain.

  39. Casablanca

    Folie-a-deux: Reliance on Peta Credlin disabled, but did not kill, Tony Abbott
    Jack Waterford
    This is not nudge-nudge for an affair, but a pointer to a relationship in which both parties had lost some of the detachment that makes for effective public partnership. It contributed to a folie-a-deux and a type of co-dependency that seems to have disabled both, but particularly Abbott.

    Surely we have to take some responsibility for electing this giant man baby? First Dog on the Moon
    Follow our handy psychografic flowquizchart-o-gram to find out if you are personally to blame for the downfall of the Tony government

    Abbott’s Undermining Of Turnbull Is ‘Amateur Hour’ Kevin Rudd Claims
    The Shovel

    “I Think for Myself” Credlin Tells Abbott To Say
    The Shovel

    Abbott Says He’ll Need To Check With Credlin Before Confirming Or Denying Their Affair
    The Shovel

  40. welbil

    What a sad and sorry chapter in our history!

    People knew that Abbott was a dud but they voted him in. How weird was that? This was despite his total lack of judgement (remember the ‘my son’ saga; sleeping ‘top to tail’). Despite the stream, no torrent, of bullshit, we STILL elected him! How weird was that? Oh, he’s a ‘really nice guy face to face’, they said – what did they expect – someone who looked like an axe-murderer? FFS!

    It was almost like some prolonged, collective, fit of masochism.

    How weird!

  41. paul walter

    I hope the article is not intended to get Credlin off the hook. The dynamics of that relationship are just way too complex for such a reduction.

    What Credlin is and has done, by the evidence, is less no contemptible than what Abbott is and did.

  42. yowie9644

    It is clear that Abbott always had a problem with women – didn’t really know what to do about them. Credlin, keenly intelligent and both physically and mentally powerful, found a perfect puppet to manipulate: a man full of machismo on the outside, and terrified of women on the inside. Abbott was perfect for her, and she played him like the puppet master she is. Sadly for her though, she couldn’t turn him into a likeable friendly sort of chap that was required for a leader (his attack-dog “bruiser” style being perfect for opposition). The more he failed, the more he ‘needed’ her to keep his ego going. She knew exactly what she was doing.

    I disagree with her politics, but have great admiration for how she played this game out – Credlin is a force to be reckoned with. She’s relatively young, and would make a great politician in her own right once this “affair” business blows over.

  43. diannaart


    Credlin is not someone I would care to see with too much power – I shudder to think of what she would be like as a politician. I believe we have a surfeit of narcissists in politics already.

    Conversely, I disagree with Paul that all the fault lies with Credlin, that she was some kind of master puppeteer – for what it’s worth Abbott played the most significant role, held the most power – he’s not leaning on her now is he? He’s still very much in the public spotlight – without Peta whispering into his ear.

    To hold only Credlin accountable; the clever female manipulator to the hapless, helpless male – does not wash.

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