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The past decade has seen heightened salience for international tax policy, resulting in both increased public debate and a series of policy responses such as country by country reporting. A significant factor in that heightened salience is the role of civil society groups campaigning around the costs of lost national revenue through harmful tax competition.

But how has civil society advocacy around international tax justice waxed and waned since the 2008 global financial crisis? And which is more mobilising: austerity policies from national governments or leaks like the Panama Papers?

I address these questions in my PhD project, part of which has been recently published in Social Movement Studies. I compare the trajectories of international tax justice mobilisation between 2008 and 2016 in the United Kingdom 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, other international development non-government organisations, trade unions and protest groups – in a holistic way using the theoretical tools of social movement research.

I compare trajectories of tax justice mobilisation by collecting 909 media reports of public claims by tax justice movement actors in newspapers from the UK and Australia over this period. The political claims analysis method that I apply allows tracking of the amount of public claim-making and a comparison of which frames are most prominent in movement discourse. That is, I use this method to investigate how information is presented selectively to emphasise certain interpretations and causal explanations over others.

Mobilisation is higher and more intense in the UK than Australia

The data set of newspaper reports shows some important differences in international tax justice mobilisation between the two countries.

First, mobilisation around tax justice 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 (the Melbourne based The Age was added to Australia’s two national papers, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, to ensure diversity of media ownership).

Second, my analysis shows that from a social movement perspective, tax justice movement claims were 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.

I then conducted a closer analysis of newspaper reporting, revealing several important nuances.

In both countries, contention peaked in response to domestic austerity

The data shows several mechanisms are particularly important in tax justice mobilisation across the two countries at different times.

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 were associated with different levels and kinds of contention.

Contention in the UK peaked in the twelve months following the incoming conservative Cameron Government’s first austerity budget in 2010, instead of during the first post-global financial crisis period, or the aftermath of the Panama Papers, as might have been expected. Similarly, 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, it seems 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.

If we analyse the frames of movement actors’ claims, we can investigate this possibility more directly. In my data, I find that the language used by tax justice movement actors in the media shows ‘frame alignment’ around austerity. In other words, tax justice campaigners linked their objectives to sympathetic but, until then, untapped pools of prospective supporters who were angry about austerity. For example, campaigners might argue that members of the public should care about a particular multinational enterprise ‘dodging its taxes’ because of the government’s decision to cut hospital funding due to budget constraints.

Another relevant frame for tax justice claims was international development. Analysis of news reporting shows that in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, international development was a prominent frame for tax justice actors. However, from 2010, and in the wake of austerity policies, movement actors framed claims around tax justice much more in terms of the impact on domestic revenue and hence domestic austerity than had previously been the case.

The combination of fresh grievances around austerity, and frame alignment by movement actors around national revenue, results in what social movement scholars call ‘scale shift’ (when a contentious issue moves from one level of spatial organisation to another).

International tax justice which had initially been viewed more as an issue of international development was translated into the national political arena. It is the process of downward scale shift, moving from a ‘global’ to a ‘national’ issue, which is associated in both countries with the window of most intense mobilisation, as new supporters are enrolled in the conflict.

Domestic grievances are central in international tax justice advocacy

These findings demonstrate the centrality of the national scale for international tax justice advocacy, in two related respects. First, 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.


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