KOMPAS.com - Once a rusty Newcastle steel producer, BHP Billiton recently overtook Microsoft as the world's third-biggest listed company. Powered by a global boom in commodity prices, BHP looks set to deliver a full-year profit of more than $US22 billion, a figure that exceeds the annual output of more than 100 countries.
To put it bluntly, BHP Billiton which has operations spanning coal, iron ore and copper, is bigger than Armenia, Macedonia, Papua New Guinea, Iceland and much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Today BHP Billiton is a big company and when it speaks - particularly in Canberra - it has a big voice. That voice was raised a few decibels when the former prime minister Kevin Rudd proposed the original resources super profits tax. BHP played a key part in forcing a significant compromise, a campaign that also led to Rudd's ousting.
Nevertheless, the retirement last year of the long-serving chairman Don Argus is viewed by many in Canberra as a softening of BHP's political bite. The new chairman, Jac Nasser, while having a strong record as a global executive, does not have the same clout in Canberra as his well-connected predecessor.
Argus learnt most of the ropes in dealing with politicians between 1990 and 1999 while running National Australia Bank, which at the time was Australia's biggest bank.
To counter this lack of clout, BHP has pumped up its lobbying firepower by hiring Rudd's former chief of staff, David Epstein, to oversee its government relations. Before joining BHP Billiton last year, Epstein held the equivalent role at Qantas - arguably the nation's most politically astute company.
Argus, of course, has not disappeared from the scene. He was instrumental in thrashing out with the Gillard government the revised mining tax, a levy that will now collect closer to a third of the $99 billion Treasury had forecast the original tax would have raised during the next decade.
The lost revenue was put into stark perspective yesterday when BHP handed down a $10.52 billion first-half profit, an 88 per cent jump on the same time last year.
With acquisition targets thin on the ground and low levels of corporate debt, BHP is getting to a point where it does not have a better option for its profits than handing much of it back to investors in the form of share buybacks and sweetened dividends.
In another sign of BHP's rising clout, this week BusinessDay revealed that the chief executive, Marius Kloppers, took personal credit for quashing the proposed $23.9 billion investment in Rio Tinto by Chinalco, owned by the Chinese government.
According to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Kloppers further believes BHP won a strategic victory in encouraging the government to 'draw a line in the sand' against substantial Chinese investment in Australian resource companies.
The remarks were made in confidential talks with the US consul-general, Michael Thurston, at BHP's Melbourne headquarters. The talks took place a day before the deal fell through. Yesterday Kloppers confirmed the discussions took place and did not deny the comments raised in the cables.
Adding to that power is the fact that BHP is one of the nation's biggest employers. Of its 39,500 global employees at the end of last year, 38 per cent were based in Australia. This also goes for nearly half of its 58,500 on-site contractors.
Such power and influence, though, bring big responsibilities. As a result, companies such as BHP have to step carefully, especially in their dealings with the state.
'Governments have tremendous power in relation to these companies, particularly latent power,' said Peter Brain, an executive director with the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research. 'Now of course that latent power can only be used at the right political moment.
'Occasionally it is up to the governments to remind these companies they are the operators of resources at the behest of the Australian resident. Yes, BHP has got power, but basically they are the operators of Australian-owned resources, nominally owned by the residents. So it's up to governments to exert that fact,' Brain said.
The Greens leader, Bob Brown, for one called on governments to have more 'backbone' when it comes to dealing with companies such as BHP. 'This profit of BHP in the order of $20 billion-plus for a year is something that government has to see properly and adequately shared to the Australian people.
'And that's not going to happen unless we have governments with backbone,' he said yesterday.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said she was unwilling to change the design of the mineral resource rent tax after the Greens called for the super tax to be reinstated because of the huge profits and forgone revenue. 'I've been consistent on this proposition and I've been asked on more than one occasion,' Gillard said. 'We will deliver through the Australian Parliament the tax as
I agreed it with Australia's biggest mining companies.
'We will not be compromising that agreement in order to secure the legislation.'
It is a sensitive issue as underlined when talk of a super profit tax comes up in banking circles, a point that has the big four lenders quickly turning the spotlight back on the resource sector.
Commonwealth Bank, which is on track for a record profit of $6.8 billion this year, recently argued that its earnings were nowhere near the scale of mining companies. On one measure of profitability - return on assets - the chief executive, Ralph Norris, points out that the bank makes only $1 for every $100 of assets. By comparison BHP's return on assets is more than 37 per cent.
Norris went a step further by calling for a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund to ensure Australia does not squander windfalls from the mining boom. 'Mining companies are recovering resources that are the natural endowment of Australians, and therefore Australia as a country should look to get some return on that,' Norris said.
Of course, BHP sees it differently, particularly when it comes to the issue of investment. Big resource projects often take between five and 10 years to develop, with costs running into billions of dollars. For oil projects the investment is tens of billions of dollars.
Just to underline how much it is pumping into the economy, BHP yesterday outlined an $80 billion investment over the next five years - with most of that to be spent expanding iron ore operations in Australia's north-west.
Kloppers says BHP's strategy is to offer a valuable proposition to shareholders by developing long-life growth assets which have high margins and high capital returns.
'[This] basically allows us to do three things simultaneously, which is invest in the business, maintain the balance sheet and increase the amount of money to shareholders.'