Politics

‘I was the captain of the Titanic and I had to stay with the ship’: Laila Harré on the Internet-Mana debacle and rejoining Labour

Three years after she was so dramatically unveiled as leader of Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party, Laila Harré has returned to Labour. In a frank and revealing interview, she tells Toby Manhire what went down in 2014, and why she’s decided to throw her lot back in with the party she first joined 36 years ago.

Laila Harré remembers the moment, about a month out from the 2014 election, when she realised Internet-Mana was bearing down on an iceberg. “We were driving to our roadshow meeting in Napier, whatever the date was, maybe a day or two before you submit your nominations to the powers that be.”

She was leader of the Internet Party, brainchild of the “founder and visionary” Kim Dotcom, the flamboyant internet mogul being sought for extradition by the US whose lack of citizenship prevented him from running for parliament. The Internet Party had recently exchanged vows with the Mana Movement, led by Hone Harawira, in a marriage of electoral convenience.

This new, unlikely amalgam in New Zealand politics had attracted respectable numbers to its events around the country, but faced a carousel of mini-scandals, squabbles, breached confidences and no little ridicule. On the road to Hawke’s Bay, Harré received news of “yet another leak, which was related to our advertising over the decriminalisation of cannabis, and an email that Hone had sent was leaked. I just knew then that this was the wrong place, wrong time, wrong channel.”

But she knew, equally, that it was too late to jump. “A month out I knew this was the wrong place to be. But by then I was committed. I was the captain of the Titanic and I had to stay with the ship. That is exactly how I felt.”

Laila Harré at home in Te Atatu, Auckland. Photos by José Barbosa

Laila Harré at home in Te Atatu, Auckland. Photo by José Barbosa

The table at Harré’s light-soaked, harbour-view Te Atatu home is set for four: Harré, me, Barry Gribben, who regularly springs up from his seat to attend to coffee or a courier, seemingly not wishing to cramp his wife’s style, and José Barbosa, the Spinoff’s producer, photographer and spiritual guru. There is homemade minestrone soup, toast, and a plate of vivid-yolked eggs, the spoils of the chickens out the back. The promise of chickens, confides Harré, was a telling gambit in her husband’s successful campaign to persuade her that they should return at the end of last year to their house on the peninsula after more than five years in Mt Eden. Her reluctance, she says, was largely due to the nuisance of moving house – this is her 26th move – as well as adding so many miles in travel time to Ika, the Eden Terrace restaurant that she opened about six months after the disastrous result in the 2014 election.

What are we doing here, with the soup and the eggs and the unpleasant recollections of that messy campaign?

I’d tried a couple of times last year to persuade Harré to talk about the Internet-Mana experiment, without success, but now she was up for it, following December reports that, 27 years after she joined the Jim Anderton exodus, she had rejoined the Labour Party. That completed a round trip taking in New Labour, the Alliance (including a cabinet role from 1999 to 2002 in coalition with Labour), the Greens and the Internet Party. We’re here to discuss all that, and why Harré, a self-described “political animal”, is thinking seriously about throwing her hat back in the MP ring.

What was it about the Labour Party that drew her back? Is there something there now that there wasn’t, say, three years ago?

“No,” she says. “I think just my own analysis of the body politic of New Zealand has changed in that time. My own conclusion is that it’s really not going to be possible to build an alternative party to Labour on the left. I guess coming to terms with the importance of Labour institutionally to our democratic fabric… The one pre-condition, it seems to me, to having a progressive, innovative government is to strengthen the Labour Party. There are other things that may or may not need to happen but that is one thing that absolutely must happen for that to be possible. So I think the priority is to rebuild public confidence in the Labour Party and inject new ideas and energy into the party.”

And she’s gunning for a Labour candidacy? “I’ve been asked to think about it and I have.”

By whom? “By senior people. I joined early last year and I’ve been just doing stuff that members do, knocking on doors and helping out. I’d genuinely not really thought about standing, certainly in this election if at all. But then in conversations the possibility came up, so, yeah, I’ve definitely been exploring it.”

‘I don’t want to be perceived as disruptive, I’ve had enough of that’

If she does put her name forward in 2017, then where? In Auckland, the departures of the Davids Cunliffe and Shearer leave vacancies in New Lynn and, via Jacinda Ardern’s relocation to Mt Albert, in Auckland Central. One of those? “New Lynn’s out of the question because nominations have closed,” says Harré, brutally exposing the ignorance of The Spinoff’s so-called political editor.

“New Lynn would’ve made a lot of sense in terms of where my political base is out west and it’s a working class constituency, largely with the kind of issues I’m most interested in advancing. But I didn’t really give any serious thought to that option. They’ve got two good candidates in Deborah Russell and Greg Presland … So I wouldn’t have felt that it was the right kind of move. And it would’ve been perceived to be disruptive and I don’t want to be perceived as disruptive, I’ve had enough of that. The options are really seats that are not safe Labour seats.”

“Epsom!” exclaims The Spinoff political editor through a mouthful of minestrone.

“No, not Epsom. I think David Parker stands in Epsom. I assume that’s the plan.”

Auckland Central, then? Harré admits she’s been thinking it over, and has been encouraged by some in the party to have a go. But with nominations closing next week, she says she’s unlikely to be among them. “I guess it’s still a possibility but I’d say remote in terms of where I think I would be best used to win more party votes for Labour, which would be the job. That’s absolutely the job regardless of whether people are in safe seats or other seats, they have to be very focused on the party vote. And Labour is slowly figuring that one out …

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I read back to Harré her remark from a few moments earlier, on reasons for staying out of the New Lynn candidacy battle: I don’t want to be perceived as disruptive. This, surely, is one of her major hurdles in re-entering the mothership – the perception among stalwarts that her multi-party resumé, and especially the Internet Party adventure, scream disruptive.

But if part of Harré’s purpose today is rehabilitation, to assure her comrades new and old that she is no threat to party unity, neither is she about to start sugar-coating her thoughts. The response to news she’d rejoined so far has been “mixed” she says.

“There are some people who’ve never forgiven us for leaving the Labour Party in 1989 and some of those are still there. They’re people that voted for privatisation, voted for student fees, voted for prescription charges and advocated for these things. So I’m quite happy to go into the ring and defend the NLP [New Labour Party] and Alliance against any of those claims. There are people there who were antagonistic to the Alliance right through that term of parliament when we were in government together.

“Labour’s leadership were deeply involved in the destruction of the Alliance in 2002. There’s a whole story there. Some of this, from my point of view, is ancient history, and some of the issues that arose from 2014 are really just ammunition from that being used by people who’ve never wanted to see us, those associated with the NLP or the Alliance, back in politics. There is definitely some of that.”

Harré is acutely conscious of the fresh memories over the Internet Party debacle. “I think the most reasonable doubt that’s raised in terms of 2014 is the issue of my own personal judgment in taking on the leadership of the Internet Party and working with Mana. Obviously, in hindsight, others were able to predict things that at the time I didn’t predict.”

Among those in Labour who express this reservation, says Harré, “generally the line is not that I shouldn’t stand, but that it’s too soon and that I need to do my time in the party. And I think that’s a completely valid view. I think it’s a rather overly cautious one because my perception is that although 2014 is obviously not a great thing on my CV, from a political point of view, there’s a hell of a lot of good stuff on there. And I think Labour actually desperately need people in there who have some frontline political experience, have cut deals in real life in the outside world of parliament, have done hard jobs and have success in that, who’ve got the trade union base, and who’ve had ministerial experience and know how the whole scene works internally in Wellington. Personally, I think that outweighs the obvious easy attack based on the 2014 experience.”

‘It was all very odd. But also really exciting’

At the end of the proverbial day, Internet Party leader Laila Harré was only one component in what has become known as the “Peak Cray” election – a psychedelic circus of Dirty Politics, Colin Craig, the “Moment of Truth”, even Eminem. But before all of that, when Kim Dotcom publicly unveiled Laila Harré, dressed in a Star-Trek-esque grey suit, as party leader, it already seemed pretty weird.

Did it seem weird to her? “Yeah it was completely weird. I mean, I’ve never secretly had my hair cut or had somebody bringing me clothes to try on at home because I couldn’t be seen out in public. It was all very odd. But it was also really quite exciting.”

Laila Harre and Kim Dotcom at the Internet Party leader launch. Via YouTube

Laila Harre and Kim Dotcom at the Internet Party leader launch. Via YouTube

The first approach had come from people within Mana. “They were in the process of negotiating with the Internet Party. The scenario was that the Internet Party looked like it might get two, three, four percent of the vote. That vote would be wasted because I don’t think anyone except possibly Kim thought that they’d get five percent on their own. But even he could see that was unlikely… So in order for those votes to be salvaged, there had to be a deal with a party that held an electorate seat, and Mana only wanted to make that deal if they had confidence in the personnel of the Internet Party and that meant having a say in the leadership.”

Her initial response to overtures was astonishment. “I literally fell off my seat laughing. But over time the idea grew on me, really. I explored a lot more the kind of policy areas that the Internet Party had already begun work on. They did do an enormous amount of policy work in focused areas which I think is still extremely useful … I met with various people – Kim and Vikram [Kumar, the party’s chief executive] primarily, in terms of the Internet Party, and with Mana people. And talked through all the nuances of it.” Her decision: thanks, but no. Then, a few days before the big launch, “there were some further conversations with people I’ve kicked around in politics with for a long, long time. I decided to do it.”

Earlier in 2014, Harré had been working with the Green Party, but quit the campaign committee over the handling of a rebuff from Labour over a formal pact. The Greens, she says, released “details of their conversations with Labour to the media, to disrupt the potential for a Labour-Green compact for 2014″ – a version of events rejected by at least one Green MP. “This was the context, really, that things were clearly not working out between the Labour and the Greens. The Internet Party may get two, three, four percent of the vote, all of which would be wasted. Yes, Hone would get back into Tai Tokerau almost certainly – well we all thought certainly. But if we were going to change the government, we needed to think tactically about every single seat, every vote.”

‘That’s something I haven’t talked about, we had next to no discretion about spending’

With Internet-Mana, things began promisingly. “We kicked off the roadshow and we filled halls from right up in the far north, down to the deep south, that really was a positive experience for me. I loved being in the largely Māori communities of the north … There was a big curiosity factor, there were tons of young people who got engaged through that process.”

But before long, says Harré, it became apparent that the expected funding wasn’t going to materialise. “It was a huge frustration to me because obviously one of the big attractions of the enterprise was that it was a well-funded opportunity to develop a left programme. But by the time we were actually there and in the depths of planning the campaign, we discovered that the money had all been spent or committed. So we were actually working with very little. That’s something that I haven’t talked about at all, at the time or subsequently. But we had next to no discretion about spending. In fact, we ran all of that pretty much on the smell of an oily rag, beyond what had already been put in place and planned …

“I expected that we would have a significant campaign fund and discretion over how that was used. Instead I was fighting to get billboards put up because there wasn’t money for billboards.”

Fighting with Dotcom? “No, fighting the process which had been established for spending and committing money. So that was enormously frustrating and I felt very let down about that. The risk that I was taking, to then not have the ability to drive the strategy and be in charge, it was definitely a lose-lose in the end.”

Later, after Harré’s own moment-of-realisation on the road to Napier, came the Moment of Truth: Kim Dotcom’s extraordinary event in a packed Auckland Town Hall, with journalist Glenn Greenwald and Bob Amsterdam onstage in the flesh, flanked by the German, and MC Harré, with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden beamed from London and Moscow on to screens above them. The purpose of the event was to expose illegal spying by the New Zealand government, but that had become entangled, via Dotcom, with his own case against extradition as well as the Internet-Mana project. National strategists did all they could to entangle it, too, with the opposition challenge as a whole – as well as with Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics revelations, which documented, through hacked emails provided to the author, links between the Beehive and attack blogger Whaleoil.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Julian Assange, Internet Party leader Laila Harre, Robert Amsterdam, Glenn Greenwald and Kim Dotcom discuss the revelations about New Zealand's mass surveillance at Auckland Town Hall on September 15, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand. The general election in New Zealand will be held this weekend, on 20 September 2014. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Moment of Truth was staged in the week before the 2014 election at the Town Hall. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

At first, Harré and Dotcom sought to keep the event discrete from the party. “Kim had insisted on doing it and doing it independently of Internet-Mana. But in the end it was so clear that there was no way we were going to be able to disassociate ourselves from it that we actively connected to it. I MC’d it, although that was only a decision or request made the day before…

“I mean, I thought the event itself, leaving aside the disappointment in terms of expectations raised, was absolutely spectacular in that we brought those people into that room. Both in terms of the speakers but also the audience. They heard a story about mass surveillance in New Zealand that had not been heard before. I thought it was incredibly important but obviously it wasn’t what the media had been banking on.”

‘I believed that there was going to be a revelation’

Earlier in the day an email had emerged on the NZ Herald website, purportedly from the Warner Bros CEO in 2010, apparently showing John Key was plotting to ease Dotcom into New Zealand residency so he might be extradited to the United States. The email, which was dismissed as “a fabrication” by Warners, and its contents denied by the prime minister, was presumably Dotcom’s intended Moment of Truth big reveal. On the night, it went unmentioned. It was hardly a surprise the event was derailed, that those of us watching from the media seats were fixated on this mysterious email rather than the broader surveillance arguments, I suggest, given that the email was almost certainly not authentic.

Harré pauses. “I can’t say that it was almost certainly not authentic.”

Really? “No. I absolutely, to this day, believe that Kim believes it was authentic. And not that I had any say in the matter, but to the extent that I could authenticate it, which I could only do through conversation at the time, I think that if a parliamentary inquiry had been held, if the provenance of it had been able to be tested in a kind of environment where people weren’t at legal risk, then I think things would have been very different.

“Even if you go back to John Key’s reaction at the moment that came out was not to deny that this had taken place. It was to say you need to talk to my chief of staff about what happened at meetings. There was never a denial. And then the more powerful people, I guess, within the reporting class decided that this was something to go for, just to say it’s not authentic.”

For those taking part in the Moment of Truth, meanwhile, “the decision about how to deal with this was changing every hour in the couple of days before the event. When we went on stage, I believed that there was going to be a revelation, and that there was going to be a full explanation given of all this, which I believe would certainly have been convincing enough for those who could be convinced. That was Bob Amsterdam’s sort of role on the platform that night. But that didn’t happen, so I’m still not quite sure when decisions were made and why, but, you know, Kim has taken a lot of risks on the legal side of his case, and I absolutely know that it was his lawyers and not him who were urging caution on this.”

So there was something held back? “That was my experience.”

Do you know what that was, or have a sense of it? “Yeah, I have a sense of what it was.”

What was it? “The explanation for this email.”

Despite everything, Harré believed she was on track for a seat in parliament. “It was literally not until election night itself that I really had any idea that Hone could lose his seat. That was a complete shock to me.”

Given Dotcom’s recent vocal support for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the US election, Harré could be forgiven for thinking she dodged a bullet. “All sorts of things could have gone terribly wrong over the few years of an electoral term, had we been elected,” she says. “If it had just been Hone and I elected, which would have been the case on our party vote, if Hone had won the seat, it is very probable that we would have had to explore alternative options to Internet-Mana for this election. I don’t know what we would have built, you don’t know.

As it was, Harré and Dotcom “completely disagreed” on the future of the party following its defeat. “I’m an organiser, I’m a builder, and I’m also a realist, and I could see that the Internet Party was going nowhere, that the only chance of it developing was if it had a kind of benchmark in parliament … And yet, we had engaged quite a lot of really fantastic, particularly younger, activists in the campaign as candidates and helpers. Around the country there were some very, very smart people, particularly people who had been in the forefront of digital economy stuff. I thought this was an opportunity to keep them engaged in politics and remain networked as a group of people who’d been involved in this project and who had a set of common values and priorities and see where we might help people go.”

‘Kim was utterly, resolutely in denial’

Kim Dotcom, meanwhile, “was utterly, resolutely in denial about the death of the Internet Party,” she says. “There were people close to him within the process who were happy to give credence to that denial, and pretend, in my view, that they could keep it going. So in the end I had to walk away from it. I mean, it wasn’t acrimonious between Kim and I. There wasn’t much point in acrimony. I felt pretty disappointed, pretty angry. He even managed to upstage us on election night, by taking the blame for the whole episode and that was to me pretty indicative of how things had gone right through the campaign. But I kind of have to accept that I just put myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wouldn’t say we’re close in any way at all, but I’m certainly no enemy of Kim’s, and I still feel very strongly that New Zealand has played a very cruel role in terms of our justice system and complicity with the US on his legal case.”

A criticism Harré won’t countenance is to be called an opportunist. “Actually, an opportunist would have been clearly looking for an opportunity from 2002 to come back in. It took me a really long time to even contemplate standing for parliament again. The biggest opportunity I had to do it was with the Greens. I’ve no doubt that had I nominated and campaigned for a winnable place on the Green list in 2014 that I would have been selected. I’d had plenty of support for that. But it just didn’t feel right. To be part of something obviously risky, innovative, and what I saw to be a tactical necessity in the end with Internet-Mana, did seem right at the time. And pretty wrong in retrospect.”

Following ugly infighting and a schism in the Alliance in 2002, which saw Jim Anderton and his backers depart to form the Progressive Party, the party failed to win a seat at the general election. “I was completely heartbroken. Barry and I had given 13 years of our lives to the creation and building and work in the New Labour Party and the Alliance. It was a very difficult experience to see that disintegrate, which it did, obviously. I was kind of steering clear of politics altogether. And it wasn’t until much later that I started to work for the Green Party directly in a paid parliamentary role that I sort of regained some confidence about directly engaging in the political process and started to try find a political voice again.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 29: Alliance Leader Laila Harr'e receives flowers with Matt McCarten in the background after talking to guests about her party's policy's at the Alliance Election campaign launch that was held at the Lincoln Green Hotel in Henderson, Saturday. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

Laila Harré, as leader of the Alliance, with colleague and friend Matt McCarten, today a key Labour strategist. Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images

If – albeit at this stage a sizable if – the centre-left were to assemble a government later this year, and Harré were to be part of the Labour caucus, she’d almost certainly need to work closely with the Green Party. Is there any bad blood remaining there?

In answer to this question, Harré could say something anodyne like, “I am confident that our disagreements are in the past and I welcome any opportunity to work constructively with a party I admire and respect”.

She does not do that.

“I don’t know,” is what she says. “The contest I had with the leadership at that time was over precisely their relationship with Labour, and their decision to pull the rug on their relationship with Labour, and to go into the 2014 election campaign as strongly competing with Labour, rather than silently accepting that David Cunliffe, who was hopeless, you know, as a decision-maker, was not going to find his way to a formal agreement.

“So my view at the time was just accept that if you’re going to get into government it has to be with Labour, therefore you have to have a good relationship with Labour, even if it is hard … I thought it was grossly irresponsible in terms of the main game, which was to change the government, to take this argument with Labour into the public arena. So I’m a complete advocate of the memorandum of understanding … If there are still Green leaders who don’t like the fact that I expressed that view in 2014, well, so be it.”

For some in the Labour Party there is a powerful aversion to using the word left without putting centre- in front of it, a conviction that the cause is doomed if you cannot, in Helen Clark’s words, “command the centre ground”. For many of them, it’s safe to say, unabashed leftwinger Laila Harré is unlikely to be top of the shopping list.

“I think the international evidence would very clearly point to the biggest risk being in social democrat parties not strongly connecting to their traditional base, and not strongly articulating their core policies around equality, wages, education, not being frightened of trade unions, all of that,” says Harré. “I just think the international evidence is overwhelmingly telling us that. And if anything I think it’s very clear that you take a much greater risk if you are not clear about where your base is.

“And that appeals to people who are in a comfortable and protected position. Like our family, for instance. If you look at the polling for the Alliance, right through our peak times, where you know in fact we were polling higher than Labour and National in periods in the early 90s, a very big component of that was relatively very well off people. There is a cultural kind of base for this as well as an economic base, and I think that by not talking to people about the obligation they have beyond their borders, or their fence, to a wider community, and to children everywhere, that we actually lose votes, we miss opportunities.”

Laila Harré is by no means past it. This month she celebrated her 51st birthday: still a spring chicken in political terms. But she has nevertheless put plenty of political miles on the clock. Is the fire for parliamentary politics really still there?

“I would love to do it,” she says, flashing a toothy grin across the table. Her six years as an Alliance MP were “by far the most effective I’ve felt, in my life. And not just in government, in opposition as well. The Alliance was a really incredible campaigning force. The policy work was just incredibly substantial. We didn’t put out three-page documents, we put out 30-page documents. We analysed the structure of these different areas of the economy and society, we were picking up on innovative thinking from around the world, we had great networks internationally. We were experts in our fields, many of us. And I think we brought a really strong character to parliament. I loved it. I felt really effective, as a minister I felt like I got heaps done, not just paid parental leave, there were many other policy areas which I saw through from beginning to end.”

Paid parental leave was a substantial victory for Harré as minister of women’s affairs. I ask her if, should she end up back in the House, whether there is one further policy breakthrough she’d like to lead. Proving that she remains at core a politician, she responds with two.

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“There is one to me that is absolutely unfinished business as far as I feel my political contribution is concerned, and that’s free tertiary education. When Phil Goff introduced the first student fees, and that just grew into the loan scheme and all of that, I made a commitment way back then, 1990, the year my first son was born, that I would campaign for free tertiary education, he would get a free tertiary education. Well, too late for that, but I’m still campaigning for it. Labour’s now moved to the three years no fees [policy]. I hope there will be movement on a universal student allowance, and that ultimately the popularity of those things will result in the reintroduction of free tertiary education. So that’s a long-term battle that I’ve identified myself with.

“The second one, which is newer, is drug law reform. I think it’s time that we were upfront and sensible about that policy debate. I think it’s well past the time where major political parties need to feel nervous about it. It might be difficult, with this kind of core constituency that Labour and so on have but that is a case that has to be made, and the harm that’s being caused by our drug laws is enormous, and it’s particularly severe in communities which are already vulnerable and at real risk as families. So that’s another area.

“And,” she adds, reaching for a third, “it probably goes without saying, that I would always have a main policy focus on industrial relations … That will always be my first priority in terms of the mechanics of policy.”

‘It’s not exactly a particularly crazy political journey’

If it doesn’t work out with Labour, how about joining Gareth Morgan’s Opportunity Party? Harré doesn’t bite. “I think I’m with Labour now. It’s a bit like we’ve moved back to Te Atatu and I’ve got my stake here.”

So this is your last party? “Well, it’s my first party,” Harré shoots back.

“Let’s just be really clear about the chronology here. I joined Labour when I was 15. I left in 1989, along with probably a third or more of the Labour Party membership. So, you know, New Labour was Labour, actually – there was total continuity there. We formed the Alliance, and then I came back and worked with the Greens. So it’s not exactly a particularly crazy political journey. It’s actually very typical of my generation of left people that started in Labour …

“But, obviously, the big disruptive bit of it was Internet-Mana in 2014, which was four months of my life. And it was anomalous. But it was hardly showing, I think, inconsistency in terms of my politics. It was totally consistent with where I’ve always put my energy, which is into bold and innovative political projects. And I would hope to see Labour launching bold and innovative political projects.”

‘Labour need some bold, gutsy strength’

Again, Harré refuses to sugar-coat that criticism of the party she has returned to.

“Certainly in terms of the conversations I’ve been having over this time, I do think that there is a lack of appreciation within Labour – not necessarily at the senior levels, but possibly in some quarters – of their vulnerability. They’ve barely moved above 30% since 2014. That was their worst election result. And they can’t blame anyone else for that. It was a terrible campaign for Labour. I think there is a lack of appreciation about the real vulnerability of their position in the political framework.

“The Greens are going from strength to strength, it seems to me. But I’ve always felt there was a natural limit to how much public support they would win. They have to be incredibly careful about where New Zealand First may head in this election, and with the public. I think that there is every chance that there could be a significant swell of support for NZ First, given the international context, and if people don’t see Labour as providing sufficiently strong anchor leadership for a government.

“My lesson from 2014 is that New Zealanders want to have a strong, dominant anchor within the government. Even though I personally think that it is completely viable to have a much more evenly weighted coalition, I do not think the public share that view. And I do think National are able to encourage the public not to share that view. So I think Labour are in a really vulnerable position. And I think they need some real, bold, gutsy strength to move into a stronger position this year.”

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