It's Time To Co-Operate

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Upon arrival to the UK three months ago, as a socially conscious 30-something, I was immediately attracted to the possibility of indulging my consumer habits more ethically. I began buying my groceries at Co-Operative Food, shopping at the Co-Operative Pharmacy, and banking at the Co-Operative Bank. I promptly became a loyal member-consumer of this aggregate partnership, and in the future I may even organise my flight home to Australia with Co-op Travel, buy whitegoods with Co-op Electrical, organise insurance, buy my next vehicle, get legal advice or arrange my funeral.

Manchester recently played host to the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC) World Festival and Expo. There were reportedly three Australian attendees amid around 5000 delegates.

The town also hosts The Co-Operative Group, the British consortium that owns the Co-Op Pharmacy, Bank and the rest. It’s the largest consumer co-op in the world. Members get a share of profits based on how much they spent in the organisation that year, and elect their own management .

The story of co-operatives isn’t all love and mungbeans, though. The Co-operative Group came perilously close to de-mutualisation and corporate takeover in a high-profile scandal in 1997. Lanica Trust Ltd, under the leadership of one Andrew Regan, was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office after a buyout attempt riddled with allegations of theft and bribery. Regan was arrested but later acquitted.

The Lanica episode kick-started a renewed interest in the place of co-operation in the marketplace. Its roots are in the heart of Manchester; in 1844, the Rochdale Pioneers established the first consumer co-operative internationally. Australia followed suit in 1859 with its own consumer co-op based on the Rochdale model. But Rochdale is merely the modern co-operative form; mercantile co-operation far predates the mid-19th Century.

To acknowledge IYC 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics provided the following analysis:

"With a few exceptions, consumer co-operatives [historically, in Australia] tended to be established at the back-end of an economic slump, when there was disillusionment with the prevailing economic system and consumers sought a greater level of economic security"

Australia has a significant, well established and entrenched co-operative economy, that makes a significant contribution to both gross state and domestic products. Australia’s co-operative history stems from our diverse history of economic disadvantage: hardship on the goldfields, drought and flooding rains affecting the agricultural sector, automobiles that habitually break down, and the need for safe, local banks.

In 2012 we have a significant co-operative economy, although we don’t necessarily know or recognise it — which might explain our small showing at Manchester. The Australia Institute recently published a revealing research paper, "Who knew Australians were so co-operative? The size and scope of mutually owned co-ops in Australia," in which the authors, Richard Denniss and David Baker, illustrate a major misconception: in spite of the 13.5 million Australians who are members of our 1600 national co-operatives, few realise what a co-op is, or that they do business with co-ops every day:

"…despite the fact that 79 per cent of people are members of a co-op only three in ten Australians could name a co-operative or mutually owned enterprise and only 16 per cent of Australians believe that they are a member of one."

Nor do we necessarily appreciate the "co-operative difference" of business exchange, which is rooted in seven inherently democratic values articulated by the International Co-operative Alliance. Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members or "co-operators" believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others.

Manchester’s World Festival of Co-operation, a coming together of the cultural renaissance taking place in the way we organise and do business, took place against the backdrop of a world economy beset by austerity, recession and depression.

Lately, co-operation has been a lifeblood for many economies decimated by deregulation, privatisation, and dodgy government/corporate partnerships. By all accounts and indicators, co-operative economies survive better than capitalist ones in time of economic downturn. They are more resilient, because they have more spine, grounded as they are in social values of reciprocal care and trust.

For example, the Mondragón Co-operative is a massive driver of the local economy in the Spain’s Basque country. And who operates Mondragón? The citizens of Arrasate (Mondragón) in the Gipuzkoa province in the Basque Region. Similar can be said for the communities surrounding Bologna, Italy, and the "Emilia Romagna" co-operative view of the world there.

Both these models encompass a broad range of consumer and worker co-operative forms, from models of banking and finance, to agricultural and producer co-operation, and lately, in various models of social care.

Social co-operation is applied to aged care, disability care, youth co-operative councils, mother and child care, and repatriation/rehabilitation programs for released prisoners. London, Wales, Spain, Brazil, Québec (Canada) and the United States are aggregating successful working models to challenge often polarised competition between private sector and not-for-profit service delivery.

Co-operatives UK, in a publication entitled "The Co-operative Economy 2012: Alternatives to Austerity", identifies trending and emergent co-operative growth models in the sectors of renewable energy, co-operative (teacher/parent/pupil run) schools, and retailing (for example, the bulk purchasing power of co-operative run wine retailing organisations).

Citizens are also co-operatively buying Football Clubs outright, as in the cases of Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and United FC of Manchester, and saving English Pubs like The Old Crown Pub in Hesket, Cumbria, or The Butcher’s Arms in Crosby, Ravensworth, to name a few.

Melina Morrison, Director of the Australian Secretariat for IYC and Director of Social Business Australia says the co-operative movement back home in Oz struggles between the old world and the new. That is, the tension between the maintenance of its historical place, and integration into a 21st century view of how markets work. The need to rebrand and engage in ongoing education about the distinctive "co-operative difference" is well recognised and identified — including at the IYC National Australian Conference in Port Macquarie late last month.

The Australian co-op movement has the potential to stand centre-stage in the emergent "Fourth Sector" — a collective name for new emergent industries, creative and social capital, and ethical business and exchange. But the faint presence of the green and gold at the Manchester international showcase is a clear sign of the work to be done to bring about a brave new co-operative world back home.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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