Published: 03 December 2012
Extracted chapter from Griffiths, David (Ed.) Co-operators - Co-operation and Co-operatives, Southeast Housing Co-operative Ltd, 2012, pp 74-76.
Co-operation between co-operatives is fundamental to the development of Australia’s co-operative movement.
The philosophy of co-operation is encapsulated in the phrase ‘each for all and all for each’. This means that individuals form co-operatives to achieve together what they cannot achieve as individuals. There is a mutual benefit. It is the logic of co-operation, therefore, that individual co-operatives join together to advance their common interests by becoming members of State Co-operative Federations to achieve mutual benefit.
There are State Co-operative Federations in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. The common roles of the State Federations are to:
• Represent and assist co-operatives in their relationships with government
• Facilitate and provide value-added services to co-operatives
• Assist the formation of new co-operatives
• Build co-operative brand recognition, integrity and value
• Promote and develop co-operative education
• Promote public awareness and understanding of the significance of co-operatives
• Promote the exchange of information amongst co-operatives, and
• Work with other co-operative organisations interstate and internationally.
The willingness to co-operate between co-operatives, however, varies within and between States. Most of Australia’s 1700 registered co-operatives are not members of their State Federations with total membership less than 10% overall. The exception is WA where most co-operatives are members of Co-operatives WA.
The lack of co-operation between co-operatives is the result of varied but interdependent factors. The predominant factors for this lack of co-operation are:
• Co-operative ideology
• Co-operative education
• Co-operative subversives
• Co-operative isolation
• Co-operative advocacy
• Co-operative pretenders
• Co-operative demutualisation
Each of these factors provides a context and explanation for the lack of co-operation between co-operatives.
There has not been a common understanding and agreement of the ideology of co-operation - what co-operatives stand for, how they are different and why. Instead of ideology, pragmatism has prevailed and this has inhibited public advocacy of the co-operative difference because there is no understood and agreed philosophical underpinning. The basis for this ideology lies in the co-operative values and principles developed by the International Co-operative Alliance.
There is no common and accepted co-operative education program and recognition that co-operative education is essential to reinforcing the identity, development and renewal of co-operatives. Co-operative education is essential to define the nature of co-operative values and principles and their application within co-operatives. In the absence of ongoing co-operative education there is an inevitable vacuum, allowing subversives to implicitly and/or explicitly undermine co-operative values and principles.
There are directors and Chief Executive Officers who actively subvert co-operative values and principles. They are gatekeepers that through their influence can prevent the practice of co-operation.
Individual co-operatives and co-operatives within sectors have pursued and preferred isolation and separation - preserving individual co-operatives and sectors. Co-operative subversives encourage isolation so that their own subversion is not revealed. Co-operative isolation encourages insulation from co-operative values and principles and separation from the broader co-operative movement.
Co-operatives and co-operators have been conservative in their advocacy of the co-operative option - difficult without an ideological underpinning. Instead of boldness, there has been timidity. Without advocacy, however, there is diminished understanding within co-operatives and public recognition of the co-operative difference - the difference between co-operatives and private and public enterprises and the scope and impact of co-operatives in Australia and throughout the world.
Many registered co-operatives, primarily in NSW and Victoria, have no interest, understanding or commitment to co-operative values and principles. Often these co-operatives were formed because it seemed the simplest and cheapest form of incorporation - the fuzziness of co-operation - or the co-operative founders in these co-operatives are either no longer actively involved or have been reduced to a minority. Registration as a co-operative is not self-evident confirmation of an understanding of and commitment to co-operative values and principles.
The demutualisation of co-operatives threatens the future of co-operatives because large successful co-operatives are essential models for new and small co-operatives. The attractiveness of the model, however, is inversely related to the co-operative ideology, education and advocacy of the large co-operatives. When co-operatives demutualise it is because the Chief Executive Officers and Boards no longer support co-operative values and principles.
A further consideration is the capacity and willingness of Co-operative Federations to be relevant and provide actual and perceived value-added services to individual co-operatives - a challenging expectation when most co-operatives in most states do not join their respective State Federations. But, given the factors above, this final consideration is a consequence not a cause of the lack of co-operation between co-operatives. If individual co-operatives were committed to co-operative ideology, education and advocacy, then they would join State Federations and make them work as effective advocates of co-operation. There is no quick fix to co-operation between co-operatives. Imposed co-operation will not survive in the long-term.
In 1923 Sidney Webb observed in The Need for Federal Reorganisation in the Co-operative Movement (Fabian Tract No 203, The Fabian Society, February 1923, p4) that in Australia, Canada and the United States:
The societies in these countries never succeeded in the past in forming a durable federation of national scope, which could weld together the scattered local societies into a powerful organisation, make itself felt in the national consciousness, and promulgate effectively throughout the length and breadth of the land the fact that co-operative societies were actually in existence in hundreds of places, and might exist in every place if only people could be made aware of them.