Aside from the empty seats, the big scandal of the Olympics so far has been the disqualification of eight badminton players for deliberately losing their matches. What’s that got to do with tax justice? Well since you ask…
ActionAid’s tax justice campaign has long been concerned not only with tax evasion in the developing world – illegally concealing wealth, or otherwise breaking tax laws – but also with tax avoidance: using technically legal but artificial loopholes to reduce or completely cancel out due taxes that could otherwise be used to pay for schools, hospitals, roads…the public goods needed to fight poverty, and for people and business to flourish.
This kind of manipulation by wealthy individuals or big companies may be legal, but that doesn’t make it fair or right. It seems that many people, including David Cameron , are starting to agree. But not everyone. The argument we hear from some multinationals and their advisers is that if something’s technically legal, it’s up to law-makers to ban it if they don’t like it. Until then, it’s everyone’s right to carry on doing it. Without this principle, they argue, laws become confused and uncertain.
This is a serious argument, worth having. I was struck this week, though, by the more unanimous public reaction to a very different group of people bending the rules. When eight badminton players were booed off the court and disqualified on Wednesday, accused of deliberately losing matches by deliberately serving into the net and smashing the shuttlecock out of the court to secure a better draw in the tournament, very few people seemed to back them.
Sport, like law, is an intensely rule-bound activity. It wouldn’t work without clear interpretation and rigid adherence to the rules. These eight players played within the rules, but were nonetheless censured for subverting the game by not playing by its spirit. It seems to me the same could be said of tax avoidance. Interestingly, the Players' Code of Conduct of the Badminton World Federation even has a kind of catch-all anti-avoidance regulation! The disqualified players were censured for "not using one’s best efforts to win a match" and "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport" – arguably the badminton equivalent of the proposed General Anti-Abuse tax Rule that the UK is mulling over this autumn.
What do you think? Is this a nonsensical effort to shoe-horn the Olympics into the tax dodging debate? Or is there something genuinely telling about people’s uncompromising support for "playing by the spirit of the game" that we can learn lessons from in our campaign?