Greek “Won’t Pay” Movement Reminds me of Queensland’s Water Tax Strike

In Greece the government has gone heavily into debt by trying to finance a government of benevolent largesse and poorly-enforced taxation. Y’know… like certain other governments you know. Now that the bill has come due and the creditors have more or less put the government into receivership, they’re trying to squeeze revenue out of the austerity- and recession-strapped citizenry as quietly as possible — for instance by hiking fees on everything the government provides, or by taking fees like road tolls that used to go to the government and instead selling the rights to collect them to private tax-farmers.

This didn’t go over as smoothly as planned, and a “We Won’t Pay” movement has been battling the new fees with a variety of tactics — including occupying and incapacitating toll booths, reestablishing electricity hookups to families who have been cut off for failure to pay the new rates, turning in their vehicle licenses rather than pay the increased license fees, and so forth.

Some clever person once said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And with that, I’d like to spend some time today on the successful tax strike targeting an agricultural water use tax in Queensland, Australia in 1927.

In 1926, the “loan mongering, money-wasting,” Queensland government, as one editorial put it, which had gone into debt to the mother country, began “inflicting taxation to meet the interest on all these devouring borrowings.”

Among the new taxes was one snuck in to the Water Act of 1926. At the time, nobody seemed to notice that there was a tax involved — “there was no mention of a tax; nor was there anything to foreshadow such a tax” — but the Act empowered a commissioner to charge a fee to farmers who, under the terms of the act, were forced to register any wells or water pumps they used. When the commissioner announced the fee schedule, it became clear that this was not just going to be a nominal paperwork-processing cost, but a revenue-raising tax on irrigation.

The farmers decided not to put up with it. Among their grievances and arguments were these:

Farmers in Queensland were organized in groups called “Local Producers’ Associations,” which were the means by which they organized and spread their tax strike. The first LPA to take on the tax was from Kalapa, and it came out swinging, passing the following resolution in :

That this association enters an emphatic protest against the action of the Government in making these undue levies against the primary producers of Queensland, who have invested their capital in improving properties for the sole purpose of sustaining livelihood either by means of watering stock or for irrigation purposes, by this excessive tax on water, which is certainly a tax on the progressive producer, and on unfortunate landholders, who have not running water on their properties. That the Council of Agriculture should be written to asking it to circularise Local Producers’ Associations in the State, requesting them to protest as a body, and advise the farmers to refuse to pay the tax; that a copy also should be sent to the Pastoralists’ Association, asking for any suggestions on the matter.

Other LPAs and other groups of farmers followed suit:

One editorialist congratulated the farmers thusly:

One must congratulate these Burdekin growers for their determination to refuse to pay the tax should the Irrigation Commissioner persist in his charges. Whilst the writer is always opposed to direct action it must be remembered that the circumstances of the present case are exceptional, and the growers at the very limit of their patience and tolerance, are driven to it.

That brings us up to . On , the government decided to withdraw the water tax. The tax resistance campaign had succeeded after only a month.

The Townsville Daily Bulletin editorialized:

Never since that historical occasion when the cargo of tea was tossed overboard in Boston Harbor, has there been a more successful rebellion against an unpopular government impost, than that which has fairly bluffed the McCormack Government, into abolishing the obnoxious Water Tax. And it was such a surprise too; since David slew Goliath, and Oliver Twist knocked out Noah Claypole, never have we seen an obnoxious giant, and a political giant at that, so completely overthrown.

The clamor of those to be levied on, commencing double forte, multiplied, as time went on, into one unappeasable roar of refusal, which about put the broadcasting companies out of business. … “What has made ’em go off the handle?” members of the Government alarmedly asked. “They have stood the State Land Tax and Super Tax, the State Income Tax and Super Tax, the Totalisator Fraction Tax, the Machinery Tax, the Hospital Tax, the Unemployed Tax, the Additional Tax for unemployment, the Increased Cheque Tax, and the Motor Vehicle Tax, and others, like lambs, and still supported the Government with old time fervor… yet, when the water tax was announced they went mad and announced in loud voices that they would cheerfully test the Government’s hospitality in penal establishments, before they would pay the tax.” Such a volte face. The one-time timid, consenting taxpayers became roaring combatants, challenging the Government to go on with the tax. And the Government has thrown in the towel.…

…Undoubtedly those originally marked out as Water Tax victims have scored. Of course, “He who fights and runs away, will live to fight another day.” But the author of that proverb forgets to mention the loss of morale, signified by such a retreat. The moment a prize fighter’s knees begin to sag in the ring, his opponent considers victory assured. All cockfighters know, the instant a bird gives ground, and shows the least sign of weakness, the main is practically settled. Queensland taxpayers, having so successfully stampeded the Government, will adopt the same tactics in opposition to any further taxation…

Indeed, not long after, the Gayndah LPA, emboldened by the victory, asked their Shire Council “to show the amount of hospital rate separately on the rate notices, the idea being that the time may arrive when they would refuse to pay, and they would require to know the amount they would deduct from their rates.” A motion to begin such resistance immediately was brought up, and failed, but another motion passed, saying:

That a further protest be entered against the incidence of the hospital tax, and request that same be collected on an income tax basis. Failing this, that we refuse to pay further tax until the Act is amended as requested.

Although the government rescinded the registration fees, the Water Act was still on the books, and some LPAs continued to counsel their members not to register their wells and pumps. “A lot of farmers were under the impression that because of registration fee had been withdrawn, everything in the garden was lovely. But the regulations were still there, and farmers who were under that impression would receive a rude awakening. Only formal registration had to be made, but they would find that if they furnished the particulars asked for they would give the Government an opportunity to later on impose the charges.”

It wasn’t until that the legislature started debating a formal repeal of “the clauses which were vexatious to a section of the community and which unduly interfered with the rights of the individual”, and it was a few years before the Act actually underwent major revisions (and I didn’t try to decipher the legislatese to figure out what any of it meant).

The preexisting organizational and communications infrastructure of the Queensland farmers was key to rapidly organizing a tax strike and to maintaining solidarity. And that, in turn, was key to their quick victory.

The Society of Friends had a rough go of it in France, in large part due to government persecution. Government intelligence kept a close eye on Quakers like Stephen Grellet, restricting their movement and forbidding them to evangelize or distribute Quaker literature.

On the prefect of Rotours “on behalf of the Prefect of La Manche, who was away,” explained the seizure of Quaker publications from an English visitor this way:

As Quakerism forbids military service on which the preservation of the State depends; as it forbids an oath, also the payment of certain taxes which are constituted a duty by our laws, it is sufficient justification for the legal seizure of the books which teach its dogmas and for taking vigorous measures against the men who would spread them.

Gustave Lanson, who wrote a study on the French suspicion and pursuit of Grellet, concludes: “No Government regards principles more revolutionary than the refusal of military service and of the payment of taxes.”