Cooperatives are an important part of building the future Australia

Contributed by Joe Montero

International Cooperatives Day fell on 2 July. This has been observed every year since the United Nations passed a resolution on 16 December 1992 to declare the first Saturday of July 1995 as the first International Day of Cooperatives. The International Cooperative Alliance’s establishment soon after, to show how cooperatives work towards making the world a better place. 

The cooperative movement aspires to build self-responsibility, democracy, equity, equality, self-help, and solidarity. This has given rise to a set of internationally recognised cooperative principles. These are democratic member control, Member economic participation, Autonomy and independence, Education, training, and information sharing, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community.

The cooperative movement has quite a history in Australia. The first organisation openly registered as a cooperative was formed in Queensland in 1858 and the movement quickly spread across the colonies. In fact, cooperatives in Australia began even earlier in the form of friendly societies. The first known one was the Maitland Union Benefit Society, set up in 1836. The friendly societies established the first unions.

Today, the union movement forms the nation’s biggest component on the cooperative movement. But it doesn’t end here. Cooperatives take all sorts of forms. Besides uniting workers to pursue their shared interests, there are cooperatives that join people with shared interests as producers, distributers, enabling access to food, housing, and a range of services. There are the building societies to provide an alternative for savings and acquiring loans, and there are the cooperative banks. Then there is the range of community and self-help organisations.

Australia has a bigger proportion of the population as members of cooperatives than any other country, even if some don’t appreciate the fact.

The greatest importance of the cooperative movement is that it provides a glimpse of the potential it provides towards contributing to the building on a different and better kind of economy and society.

Instead of enterprises existing under the ownership and control of one or a small group of individuals, the ownership and control is collective, and the administration is the responsibility of an elected committee of management. This makes cooperatives living examples of bottom-up democracy.

This is not to say they all practice this equally well. Cooperatives in Australia are held back by laws that impose limits to their self-governance. Sometimes, the private sector moves in and takes over. Government funding, when it does come, usually imposes more restrictions. Cooperatives are checked because they have the potential to undermine the concepts of private property and individual profit as the driving forces of the economy and society. Finding ways to break through these limitations is the challenge.

Despite the present restrictions, the cooperative movement remains a force with the capacity to bring about a positive and revolutionary change to society. Cooperation builds democracy in practice and not just in words and extends it to all aspects of day-to-day life.

Ultimately, the growth of cooperatives can serve to transfer political power downwards and counter control in the hands of an elite and provide a far more equitable sharing of what society creates. Cooperatives can show that dictatorship in the workplace is unnecessary and harmful. They can show that communities can run their affairs and get the best results. They show that acting together is the best way to meet individual needs. Cooperatives provide the training ground for its members to learn how to take part in management.

This is why International Cooperatives Day is important. This is why everything possible should be done to build further the cooperative movement.

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