People power stings Australian politicians over corporate tax dodging

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In Australia billionaire corporations pay a lower tax rate than an average nurse. That shocking revelation made big political waves in the country this week, thanks to a new report funded by members of the progressive advocacy group, GetUp!, with 1,048,073 members bigger than all Australian political parties put together. With only about a week to the first budget by the ultra-conservative government of Malcolm Turnbull, suddenly it and the opposition Labor party are making moves to expose the billionaire corporations robbing Australians of schools, hospitals and communities of billions in tax dollars each year.


GetUp!, with many successful influencing campaigns under its belt, will next week put television advertisements on national news programs to fuel the political race to close down the gaping tax loopholes exposed in their report.


In their typical grassroots fashion the tiny GetUp! team is asking members to choose between two alternatives – after they “descended into arm wrestling matches and some childish name-calling”. See the two films here. Members funded the ad, as they do all GetUp! campaigning.


The way the week went shows GetUp!’s reach.


On Wednesday they published their ground-breaking report about stopping the offshore flight of tax dollars, "Closing the Caribbean Connection". It was picked up by papers of the influential Fairfax media group (which inter alia publishes Australia’s most prestigious paper, The Sydney Morning Herald), The Guardian and a whole pack of media interviews.


On Thursday the report's authors testified before a snap Senate hearing on the Panama Papers leak into multinational tax dodging — before joining key senators in a post-hearing press conference.


On Friday the Turnbull government adopted a recommendation from the report to expose the true owners of shell companies used to shift profits offshore. Then the Senate Corporate Tax Avoidance Inquiry issued a report that backs the accounting standards recommended in the member-funded GetUp! report.


In its call to members to choose the television ad, GetUp! tells them that both the major parties – Liberal and Labor – “need to commit to new legislation that prevents foreign multinationals inflating their losses and shifting their profits to avoid paying tax. We pay our tax – so should they.


“The more we can force Mr Turnbull to crack down on corporate tax dodging in his May Budget, the more Labor and independents will feel the pressure to outdo him. It's an election year after all.”


Until GetUp! got the ball rolling on corporate tax dodging, the government party, heavily donation-funded by corporations, was conspicuously quiet on the issue, largely backed by the dominant, free-market-ideology Murdoch press. Labor didn’t look overly keen on the issue, either.


July 2 is looking very likely as an election day for both houses of the Australian parliament. At the moment opinion polls see the major parties neck and neck.


At the previous election in 2013 there were thousands of GetUp! volunteers outside polling booths, handing out report cards on the different parties and GetUp!'s issues. You couldn't miss them, they were all wearing orange and they were at least as prominent as the party volunteers with their how-to-vote cards.


But GetUp! says members are actually more prominent outside of elections, with a “membership bigger than that of all of the political parties put together, and in politics, numbers matter”. 


One of the reasons why GetUp!, which does most of its campaigning online, is so successful is thinking Australians’ disgust with and distrust of their print and broadcast media. The vast majority of mainstream radio and television broadcasting is commercial, the two non-commercial broadcasters, ABC and SBS, are manipulable by government because they depend on tax funding. The more than 400 volunteer community stations that have to raise their own funding somehow have practically no political clout, except on village pump issues.


And Australian born, expediently American international media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, is said to have owned 70% of Australian newspapers in 2011 as well as several broadcasting interests. His NewsCorp owns some 150 national and local newspapers in Australia. I can no longer find the source, but I remember reading once that 70 percent of the world’s people have had contact with a Murdoch product through his newspapers, magazines, radio, television, films, online presences and books.


Click here for a BBC report on Murdoch’s global reach. Click here for a story on 12 Ways Rupert Murdoch's Media Empire Has Made the World Worse”.  In November 2015, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said that Murdoch "arguably has had more impact on the wider world than any other living Australian".


GetUp! sees itself as a mouthpiece for Australians with certain values, such as environmental sustainability, economic fairness and social justice. Members decide where to put their energy. Membership is diverse. If they need a lawyer there's one there. If they need an economist there's one there, if not thousands of others. They can tap into a large membership base, making the work of a small group of staff much easier.


They work in partnership with a range of not for profit groups playing different roles in a very broad progressive movement. They claim some amazing victories over the years, for example obtaining a High Court ruling that put 100,000 voters on the electoral roll in a very tight election race. Click here for a more detailed look at how GetUp! works.