Published: 03 December 2012
Graeme Charles and Peter Jamieson
Extracted chapter from Griffiths, David (Ed.) Co-operators - Co-operation and Co-operatives, Southeast Housing Co-operative Ltd, 2012, pp 84-87.
‘Make no small plans for they have no power to stir the soul.’
Many Australians are clearly disenchanted with, and alienated from our two major political parties. This disenchantment and alienation has festered and developed quite significantly in recent years.
Most people have now become ‘consumers’ of the political product of one of the major parties, at the expense of being ‘participators’ in the development of policies that precede the product. Neither do they participate in the selection of candidates. People accept a particular brand of spin generated around short-term media cycle issues. Furthermore, the articulation and prioritising of political issues, and analysis and debate of these issues are no longer seen as necessary for citizens, as this is now packaged for them by the political party/brand of their choice. We would argue that these are fundamental activities requiring participation within a democracy, and by not engaging in them we are ‘consuming’ and not really ’participating’ in the political process.
Consuming the ready made political products of the major parties has probably given us the governments we deserve. Democracy is not something one can just ‘consume’. Democracy is a process that citizens need to ‘participate’ in. People are tiring of the sameness of politicians - be they from the left or the right - and their promises to solve problems that deflate into more of the same through back-room deals. Mainstream political products no longer match our society’s needs. People are starting to feel vulnerable, powerless and used.
Several factors have lately emerged that suggest a more ‘co-operative’ participatory approach to politics will be needed to adapt our market-driven world.
The disparity between rich and poor is growing remarkably, both within and between nations. Whilst our political and corporate elites recognise this as an issue, and potentially an unstable state of affairs, the current system seems incapable of addressing the problem. This disparity is closely allied with the unequal access to and consumption of resources needed for sustainable living for all humanity; and indeed for the biodiversity upon which we all depend. Access for all to adequate supplies of quality water, food and personal security loom as crises that will need some resolution, probably within our lifetime.
The ongoing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) is shaking the very foundations of an increasing number of western democracies. Massive unemployment and under-employment, together with casualisation of the workforce (the precariat) has brought several countries to the brink of revolution.
The globalised system is not working. How can we peacefully and meaningfully adapt our world for sustainable and equitable living?
First, we need to recognise the need for change and have a commitment to participate in that change. In order for this to occur people need to see a way forward. People will not be prepared to change unless they are convinced that change is achievable, secure, and will result in something better than their present prospects, which for a great number of us are now typically diminishing or at least becoming uncertain.
Co-operatives as organisations can provide us with achievable structures, security and better prospects for the future. We know that co-operatives have existed successfully across the entire world for many years, but it is only now perhaps, in the face of the GFC, that they may have become the uniquely suited form of enterprise and political party for a sustainable world.
Operating in the same market place as other forms of business enterprise, it is co-operatives that can provide the opportunity to put employment, environmental considerations and social equity before profit. Local ownership and control of goods and services has massive implications for the struggle to offset the destructive impact of globalisation on our resources and communities. Globalisation concentrates control with elites at the expense of the needy - Co-operatives spread ownership and control as they meet needs.
The co-operative principles, ideals, and values make the nature of co-operatives intrinsic and unique, thereby placing them front and centre as people ponder how the world can look forward to a sustainable future. We further submit that the internationally recognised co-operative values (and principles of operation) set out below, could be the very bedrock upon which a completely new approach to politics could be founded in this country. All and every one of us can adopt these dynamic cooperative alternatives. We don’t need to be rich or famous to join with others to create change.
As this paper’s co-authors, we know, co-operative enterprise has and will continue to occur on a local and national level in this country. But generally this has been done with little or no help from political parties of either persuasion. Right now this is not at all surprising, as the principles and values of co-operatives is an anathema to our major parties with their ‘spin and factions from above’ approach. This attitude is certainly our experience of being involved in the co-operative sector in Victoria for many years as members, directors and managers of co-operatives; Peter was CEO of Australia’s first telecommunications co-operative and at one time was a director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria (CFV) whilst Graeme has previously served as Executive Officer and then later a director of the CFV.
They argue that now is the time for the establishment of a ‘Co-operative Party’ guided always by the co-operative principles and ideals that would start by encouraging the participation of people in their own politics at a local to national level - not just a continuation of the consumption of more of the same offered by our major parties products. Neither the Labour nor Conservative Parties appear capable of, or interested in, addressing the problems discussed above. They are part of the problem, not the solution.
A Co-operative Party would also actively promote the co-operative option at every opportunity; something that none of our major parties has ever come close to doing. On the contrary, there is a perception, certainly at the political level within those parties, that co-operatives are out-dated and well past their use-by date. A perception that, given an effective Co-operative Party, we all know could be shown to be utterly incorrect.
Why Do We Need a Cooperative Party?
In Australia today we have reached a crossroad. We can continue along the consumption based, globalised treadmill with us cynically complaining about our materialistic lifestyle, lack of political leadership and direction, and a declining habitat.
Or, we can start to participate in a new future where people no longer abdicate their control over their economic and social lives to elites and corporations. Cooperatives provide us with the mechanisms for us to control our role in the production of our goods and services, the protection of our community valued assets, and an ethical system of cooperative behaviour which can permeate from the smallest children’s playgroup to the governing of our nation.
An Australian Cooperative Party can help us participate in our future and provide the ethical direction required for our public service.
What would distinguish a Cooperative Party from the major Australian political parties?
A Cooperative Party would be based on the values and organisational principles of the international cooperative movement. These are in stark contrast to the opportunistic self-serving elites of the major parties. It is this adherence to co-operative values that would clearly differentiate a Co-operative Party from our two major political parties.
It should be pointed out that the Greens Party in Australia also stands in stark contrast to the major parties in terms of values, organisational principles and policies. In fact co-operatives values do seem to be closely aligned with their policy set. However, the Greens have not yet endorsed the co-operative organisational model that can compete with and offset globalisation with locally controlled sustainable production.
A Green Party that embraces co-operative philosophies, and is no longer seen as ‘anti-development’ because it has a co-operative business model to power its policies, might negate the need to establish a Co-operative Party from the ground up.
Graeme Charles has been involved with and worked in the co-operative sector since 1992 when he first became interested in energy co-operatives. Since then his commitment to co-operation has gradually increased, strengthened by his belief that co-operation is a superior form of social and business organization enabling people to join together to fulfil their potential and to achieve a more caring, less selfish society. His personal co-operative experience has been as a member, director (including Chairman) of individual co-operatives and Executive Officer of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria Ltd. for 5 years. After retiring from that position he continued his involvement with the Federation, serving as a director for 8 years, the last 4 as Deputy Chairman. Graeme was directly responsible for introducing the UK Co-operative College and its co-operative education programs into Australia. During his term as EO of the CFV, Graeme authored The Co-operative Start Up Manual: the essential field guide for starting co-operatives in Victoria and wrote widely on co-operative matters. He also regularly contributed articles on various aspects of co-operation for the ‘Devondaler’, Murray-Goulburn dairy co-operative’s monthly member newspaper.
Peter Jamieson lives in Wangaratta, NE Victoria and has undertaken a number of community development roles regionally, and with government. Peter is passionate about the need to establish a co-operative sustainable culture to transcend the market-based globalisation that is consuming our world.