When did recent campaigns against tax dodging companies peak in the UK and Australia?

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How has civil society advocacy around international tax justice issues, such as multinational corporate tax avoidance, waxed and waned after the 2008 financial crisis? Which is more mobilising: austerity policies from national governments or leaks like the Panama Papers?

These are questions drawn from my PhD project, part of which has been published in a recent article in Social Movement Studies comparing the trajectories of mobilization between 2008 and 2016 in the UK and Australia. The overall project tries to understand the diverse set of organisations involved in campaigns around international tax justice – including policy experts like the Tax Justice Network, international development NGOs, trade unions and protest groups – in a more holistic way using the theoretical tools of social movement research.

This part of the project compares trajectories of mobilisation by collecting 909 media reports of public claims by tax justice movement actors in newspapers from both countries. Political Claims Analysis (PCA) allows tracking of not just the amount of public claim-making, but also comparison of which frames are most prominent in movement discourse (i.e. the way that information is presented selectively to emphasise certain interpretations and causal explanations over others).

The data set of newspaper reports shows some immediate differences between the two countries, and in particular that mobilisation is higher overall in the UK than Australia. There is a clear difference in the overall quantity of public claims. For example, a Factiva search returned 660 relevant news articles from two UK papers (The Guardian and The Times) compared with 249 from three Australian papers (adding the Melbourne based The Age in an attempt to mitigate the editorial bias of Australia’s two national papers, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review).

Significantly from a social movement perspective, the form that those movement claims took was also more intense in the UK than Australia. While there were 132 reports of UK protests around international tax justice, there were zero instances in the Australian newspapers. In fact, the only articles published in Australia about tax justice protests reported on events happening overseas, including in the UK. The size of this difference can largely (although not completely) be explained by the fact that in 2010 and 2011 there was an active protest movement called ‘UK Uncut’ which occupied the stores of allegedly tax dodging corporations. There has never been a comparable protest group in Australia targeting tax dodging companies. Overall, then, mobilization has been higher and more intense in the UK than Australia. A closer analysis of newspaper reporting, however, reveals several important nuances.

The data shows several mechanisms are particularly important across the two countries at different times to form mobilization. First and foremost is the role of grievances – the outrage felt by people when they see a problem being handled poorly or unfairly by authorities. Different mobilising grievances over the time period under analysis were associated with different levels and kinds of contention. Instead of the post-financial crisis period or the aftermath of the Panama Papers, for instance, contention in the UK peaked in the twelve months following the incoming conservative Cameron Government’s first austerity budget in 2010, whereas contention in Australia peaked in 2014 following the newly elected Abbott Government’s own austerity budget. If we look purely at the significant contextual events tied to the peaks of movement activity in each country, then, it seems then that austerity is a more mobilizing grievance for movement actors than the Panama Papers. While the release of the Panama Papers may have been the moment of greatest issue salience for the public, it was largely driven by investigative journalists rather than tax justice campaigners, who were instead more active in response to domestic austerity.

Content analysis of the frames of movement actors’ claims allows us to investigate this possibility more directly. Qualitative analysis of the language in public claims made by tax justice movement actors in the media provided evidence of frame alignment around austerity. In other words, the frames of the tax justice movement linked their objectives to sympathetic but, until then, untapped pools of prospective supporters. In this case, the key strategy for frame alignment appears to be international tax justice campaigners arguing that tax justice is a response to domestic austerity as well as international development. Analysis of the news reporting shows that in the aftermath of the financial crisis, international development was a prominent frame for tax justice actors. From 2010/2011 and in the wake of austerity policies, movement actors framed claims around tax justice much more in terms of the impact on domestic revenue than had previously been the case.

The combination of fresh grievances around austerity, and frame alignment by movement actors around national revenue, results in scale shift (when a contentious issue moves from one level of spatial organization to another). International tax justice which had, in the past, been viewed more as an issue of international development is instead translated into the national political arena. It is the process of downward scale shift which is associated in both countries with the window of most intense mobilization, as new supporters are enrolled in the conflict.

These findings demonstrate the centrality of the national scale for international tax justice advocacy in two related respects: firstly because the mobilisation potential of that advocacy is highly contingent on nationally-specific grievances, particularly those associated with austerity politics; secondly, and partly for that reason, international tax justice issues are increasingly prosecuted by movement actors through the arena of national politics.

 

This blog post is a summary of an article published recently in Social Movement Studies Journal: ‘Scale shift in international tax justice: comparing the UK and Australia from 2008 to 2016’. The full article is available at https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2019.1607283.

Michael Vaughan has recently submitted a PhD at Sydney University looking at social movements around international tax justice after the financial crisis in the UK and Australia, after almost a decade working in politics as a campaigner and policy adviser for government and NGOs.