Adjournment: ExxonMobil Australia

11 February 2020

Senator Patrick: I rise to speak this evening about a quiet Australian. He's someone who doesn't have a high profile. He doesn't seek publicity and he's not in the headlines. Indeed, he's someone whose name is quite unknown to the vast majority of Australians. But I think more Australians should know of this quiet Australian, because he has played and continues to play a significant role in our nation—especially with regard to resources that are available to government to advance the public good.

Richard James Owen keeps a low profile. Although he's at the top of his industry, he doesn't appear in the Australian edition of Who's Who. But he is, by any measure, a notable corporate success story. Born in 1961 in Penrith, New South Wales, Owen is a graduate of Sydney University, where he studied chemical engineering from 1979 to 1982. In 1983, Owen joined the Esso company in Australia as an engineer at Sale, working on Bass Strait oil and gas projects. He has worked in the petroleum and gas industry, and indeed for Esso and its American partner company, ExxonMobil, ever since. Over some 37 years, Owen has served in some technical, senior technical and executive positions with ExxonMonil around the world, including assignments in Sydney, Melbourne, Houston, Alaska, Hanover and Jakarta.

In mid-2013, Richard Owen returned to Australia as chairman and country manager for ExxonMobil Australia. He took up residence in an elegant four-level townhouse in east Melbourne, acquired for about $3.3 million, now valued at about $4.5 million. It's an attractive address, a literal stone's throw from Yarra Park and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Owen held the position as chairman of ExxonMobil for more than six years until June last year, when he was appointed to the position of upstream business development executive, another promotion within the Exxon hierarchy. He continues to be based in Melbourne.

Owen's success with Exxon has brought considerable professional recognition. He is a fellow of Engineers Australia and the Institute of Chemical Engineers, and a life member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. He is president of the Australian Resources and Energy Group of the AMMA, the Australian Mines and Metal Association. In August 2018, former Prime Minister John Howard accepted an invitation from Chairman Owen to speak in Melbourne at the group's centenary gala dinner. Mr Howard talked about industrial relations policy. He also highlighted his view that what he described as a competitive company tax rate is essential for the international survival of Australian companies. The reference to a competitive company tax rate was not without irony at the gala event. After all, one might wonder just what levels of company tax that corporate energy giant pays in Australia. The answer to that question is a big, fat zero. Over five years from financial year 2013-14 to 2017-18, ExxonMobil generated more than $42 billion in revenue and paid precisely zero dollars in corporate income tax. Those five years were the first five years of Owen's chairmanship at ExxonMobil Australia. It's almost certain that the next set of ATO tax transparency figures will tell the same story for the final year of Owen's six-year chairmanship.

This is a disgraceful state of affairs. ExxonMobil is, amongst other things, the largest supplier to our domestic gas market. While domestic gas prices have skyrocketed, Exxon has been enjoying a multibillion-dollar seven-year tax holiday, having last paid corporate tax in 2013. ExxonMobil received some attention during the course of the 2018 Senate Economics Committee inquiry into corporate tax avoidance. In May 2018, Mr Owen bluntly told the committee that he didn't expect his company would pay any corporate income tax until at least 2021. It is estimated that over this period ExxonMobil will have generated well over $60 billion in revenue in Australia. Under Owen's chairmanship and that of his successor, Nathan Fay, ExxonMobil tops the chart of Australia's biggest corporate tax dodgers.

Everyday Australians would be gobsmacked. Over eight years, ExxonMobil will have paid less income tax than hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of taxpayers—teachers, nurses, firefighters, cleaners and supermarket checkout staff. Exxon's contribution through corporate tax to the federal Treasury and all the services the government provides is zero. They rely on our Defence Force to safeguard their offshore platforms, they rely on our police to provide security for their operations, they rely on our education services to educate their workforce, they rely on our medical and health services to keep their workforce healthy, they use our roads to get to their offices, they utilise our justice system as the foundation of the rule of law and they're dependent on our national infrastructure, yet they don't contribute. They don't pay a brass razoo in company tax.

Richard Owen argued to the economics committee that it would not be fair to say ExxonMobil was avoiding paying income tax, because of the large investments that the company had made in future gas and petroleum production. He claimed ExxonMobil was in 'a unique period' and that they expected it to be 'short term in our corporate history'. However, the company doesn't mention that ExxonMobil Australia is owned through a curious set-up of shell companies variously registered in the Netherlands, a jurisdiction increasingly known for tax minimisation and avoidance, and the Bahamas, an EU-identified tax haven, and entities incorporated in Delaware, a US state well known for business secrecy. These complex arrangements are relevant because ExxonMobil has borrowed billions of dollars from other ExxonMobil companies overseas and funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars offshore via interest payments on their loans. ExxonMobil has denied these opaque arrangements have any impact on the tax paid in Australia, but the company has failed to explain the purpose of those tax haven shell companies and why those arrangements were put in place.

ExxonMobil's questionable tax position is not something that happens by accident. It happens by design, with the full knowledge of the chairman and the directors and with deep investment in international taxation planning and legal advice. ExxonMobil recently spent more than $10 million on lawyers and legal advice as it battled the Australian tax office. Owen gave evidence to the Senate committee agreeing with the public's concern about the need for companies to pay their appropriate share of tax. Transparency is 'important to a company's social licence to operate', he said. This, coming from the head of a company that took $42 billion in revenue and paid not a cent in corporate tax, has to be one of the more blatantly hypocritical and shameless statements ever made to a committee of the parliament. In a rare interview a year ago, Owen claimed that ExxonMobil was 'firmly aligned to the values, hopes and aspirations of our community'.

The former chairman of ExxonMobil Australia is a quiet Australian. But he deserves some limelight, not because of his professional achievements but because he has been party to massive exploitation and abuse of social licence. He hasn't 'aligned with community values, hopes and aspirations'. Quite frankly, he lacks social integrity. Richard James Owen is a shameless corporate tax dodger. He should be called out for what he is. Behind a veneer of professional respectability, he is a hypocrite and he is a corporate scumbag. Unfortunately, Richard Owen is not the only business figure I intend to turn the spotlight on in the weeks and months to come. Regrettably, there are others who need to be named and shamed. I am lifting the corporate veil. Stay tuned.

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