Greg Wall | CSI Blog

A huge opportunity has opened up for co-operatives everywhere. The door is wide open. The timing is right. The global debt crisis is not going away. Pundits predict 10-15 years of slow global growth. Australian businesses, even in a more robust national setting, have to compete in this slow growth international economy. This is the chance for the global co-operative sector to demonstrate it can outperform other forms of business in challenging times in terms of growth, productivity, and the capacity to make the tough operational changes to stay competitive.

A major report handed down in the UK has shown this superior economic performance. The Co-operative Economy 2012  released last week reported that the sector had outperformed the corporate sector for the fourth consecutive year. The UK co-operative sector has grown by 21% since the start of the credit crunch in 2008 whilst the UK economy as a whole has stagnated. The co-operative financial services sector in the UK grew 12.9% from 2008-2010 compared to 8% for the rest of the sector. The growth rate of employee owned businesses is 50% higher than the UK economy (1.1% compared to 0.7 for the economy at large). The sector includes the John Lewis Partnership and we are fortunate to have ex-John Lewis Chair, Sir Stuart Hampson’s blog this week to tell us why their model is so successful.

This is further evidence that co-operatively owned businesses are more resilient in economic downturns than their conventionally owned counterparts. I would like to be able to report on the economic performance of Australian co-operatives with such clarity.

Fortunately, the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives has provided us with the opportunity to launch some sector initiatives and we have a mapping project for the Australian co-operative and mutual sector currently underway. The report is due in September. Co-operative Australia’s Top 100 list  of Australian co-operative and mutuals businesses, updated for 2012, is also due out at the end of this month.

This Saturday, 7 July, marks the most important day of the year for co-operative businesses – International Co-operative Day. This year is of particular importance given that 2012 also marks the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives, a landmark achievement for the one billion owners of co-operative businesses globally and the estimated 7.5 million Australian co-operative and mutual members. 

It is no accident that this is the first time that the United Nations has awarded a business structure with International Year status. In dedicating 2012 to co-operatives, the UN recognises the vital contribution of co-operative enterprises to global socio-economic development and to achieving the Millennium Development goals, in particular poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration; and we are very pleased that Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator the Hon Bob Carr, will give a keynote address at the Development Co-operation Forum hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York this week (5 July).

In the IYC, the UN encourages Governments and regulatory bodies to establish policies, laws and regulation conducive to co-operative formation and growth. We believe that strong government support will go a long way to helping achieve these goals. 

The recognition of the role of co-operatives in Australian communities and the economy has recently gained momentum at the Federal level. Co-operatives received strong bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives on 25 June during the debate of the Private Members’ Bill tabled by Mr Luke Hartsuyker MP, Federal Member for Cowper. In addition, the passing of the Co-operatives Bill 2012 and Co-operatives National Law 2012 in the NSW Parliament marks a renewed commitment by Government to the co-operative sector. 

In launching the IYC 2012 Commemorative Coin in Australian Parliament House on 22 November 2011, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation, the Hon Bill Shorten MP noted: “We are the only nation in the world to produce a collectible coin celebrating the UN International Year of Co-operatives in 2012, as we recognise the impact of the co-operative business model on the burgeoning strength of the Australian economy on the world stage”.

Plaudits such as these are nice but the real opportunity of an International Year focusing on the co-operative model of business is the platform it provides for co-operatives, credit unions, customer owned banks, mutuals and other forms of member-owned business to showcase their economic and social achievements, and to raise awareness about the important role they play in providing a competitive marketplace and promoting social responsibility.

Australia’s IYC 2012 campaign has been fully funded by the industry – the co-operative members of Australia – and focuses on our vision for sustainable growth into the future.

The campaign aims to raise community awareness about socially responsible forms of business and the role they play in supporting local communities in Australia. I am proud of our ‘co-operative’ achievements as a sector this year, but the real game is the long term one. Charles (Chuck) Gould, Director-General of the global peak body for co-operatives, the International Co-operative Alliance, believes that the co-operative will be the fastest growing form of enterprise by 2020, and that 31 December 2012 marks a beginning not an end, of a ‘co-operative decade’.

 I am willing to place a bet that Chuck is right.

This post previously appeared in the CSI Blog: Open door beckons for rising stars of the global credit crunch – co-operatives