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Charge tax shark Exxon with contempt of Parliament

by Michael West | Dec 21, 2017 | Energy & Environment, Finance & Tax

Australia’s political leaders ought to charge US oil giant ExxonMobil and its directors with contempt of parliament. Exxon has deceived the Senate.

In 2015, its bosses were asked to disclose their relationships between ExxonMobil Australia and other Exxon companies overseas, tax haven connections in other words. Chevron and Shell respected the will of parliament. Exxon has failed.

When asked to provide this information, they failed to disclose that their parent company in Australia was 100 per cent owned by a Dutch entity which is in turn owned by a company in the Bahamas. The fact that the entire asset base in Australia is effectively controlled by a secretive entity in the Caribbean was not disclosed.

To borrow from the parlance of Anthony Robbins: “Politicians of Australia: awaken the giant within!” Do something.

The Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 defines contempt of Parliament as follows:

Conduct (including the use of words)… [which] amounts, or is intended or likely to amount, to an improper interference with the free exercise by a House or committee of its authority or functions, or with the free performance by a member of the member’s duties as a member.

Here is a company which, despite spitting out billions in cash from its gas assets here while the domestic price of gas has doubled, has managed to erase an humungous $24.8 billion in income over the past three years, leaving not one red cent to be taxed. Auditor: PwC.

How did they pull off this breathtaking feat? They did it via billions in loans from related companies overseas. The high interest rates on these loans have funnelled the profits offshore.

And they pulled it off because the political classes and the media, too focused on Tony Abbott’s wink or Julia Gillard’s choice in clothing allowed them to get away with it. Exxon was first pinged here earlier this year.

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Momentum is building however and Exxon top brass must be worried.

Early this month three unions, in league with the Tax Justice Network (TJN) issued a report which shone the light on the breathtaking magnitude of Exxon’s tax avoidance. It is now a submission for the next round of the Senate Inquiry into Corporate Tax Avoidance which kicks off in March or late February next year.

While Exxon had been silently going about its business ripping off Australia, drilling our seabeds for the benefit of US executive and shareholders, Chevron, another egregious tax cheat, had been publicly hauled over the senatorial coals for confessing to 211 entities in Bermuda.

The TJN report found that Exxon had at least 575 entities in the Bahamas, and Australian connections. The Senate inquiry into Corporate Tax Avoidance in 2015 was not told about this, despite requests.

The report also notes that Exxon’s production costs are significantly lower in Australia than the global average. It even posits that Exxon, despite soaring gas prices, may have been getting tax refunds.

What does Exxon have to say about its tax affairs?

Like its multinational peers, it has the cheek to rabbit on about how much payroll tax it pays; municipal taxes, land tax, council rates, withholding tax, petroleum excise, GST, FBT; the income tax its employees pay as if this were somehow generous.

ATO data dump: naming and shaming the nation’s biggest tax cheats

Interestingly, this company, like many on the Tax Office transparency list, demonstrates that what it is telling the taxman is different from what it is telling the corporate regulator.

According to its financial statements filed with ASIC, it does pay income tax. The ATO data shows zero, the ASIC data shows hundreds of millions of dollars.

So we have a conundrum which is not unique to the oil majors or Exxon. News Corp’s accounts too show tax paid while the ATO data shows donut.

In the case of Exxon it appears they must either be including taxes such as PRRT, which are not income tax, or else they may be recording tax paid elswhere; Singapore for instance, or Papua New Guinea. This appears more likely.

If however they are passing off PRRT etc as “income tax”, when it is designed as a royalty on production, then they and their auditors from PwC must surely be in breach of AASB107, the accounting standard on cashflow which requires income tax be separately disclosed.

In contrast to Chevron, which has been the ATO’s arch-enemy until the recent historic defeat of the oil major in the courts, Exxon is far larger. Chevron showed total income of $8.2 billion over past three years, according to the ATO data. On this, they also recorded zero taxable income and zero tax payable.

Unlike Chevron however, whose huge gas projects are in the ramp-up phase, Exxon has established gas reserves in the Bass Strait which have been operating, and dazzlingly profitable, for years.

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The methodology for ranking our Top 40 ranks companies by size of revenue and tax paid, along with a metric which ranks more highly those companies which were able to wipe out 99.5 per cent of their taxable income. Business and tax lobby types claim that, as tax is levied on taxable income rather than total income, it is not a good thing to “name and shame” companies which have large revenue and low tax.

Though as the list shows – a list based only on the publicly available figures from the Tax Office – most multinationals are masters at eliminating their taxable income as, if you record an income, you are obliged to pay tax on it.

The name of the game therefore is obliterating taxable income. The corporate tax rate is 30 per cent but 30 per cent of zero is still zero.

This is why we have adopted the metric: tax rate over margin. Margin is income over revenue. The cut-off for our initial lists is 99.5 per cent. The Big Tax List will be an organic process. Shortly the Tax Office Top 40 will be revealed.

The number one on the list will soon be unveiled. Here is number three.

EnergyAustralia: nailing energy customers and taxpayers to boot

Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

Don't pay so you can read it. Pay so everyone can!

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Pay so everyone can!

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