How is this New Economy? Democratic control of business is an important New Economy demand, so it is exciting that co-operatives are experiencing a renaissance. The Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (the first national cross-sector co-op peak body) was, for example, established only a few years ago. State based peak bodies are also beginning to flourish, particularly Co-ops NSW.
Co-ops NSW’s 2019 Conference and Expo was held over two days in Sydney in June
The vibrance and diversity of member owned and controlled enterprise in Australia was on display at the recent Co-ops NSW annual conference.
The first day offered attendees co-operative governance or digital media training followed by a fabulous 3-course dinner at a co-operative RSL club in the heart of Sydney. Ingredients used included seafood, truffles, garlic, prunes and beer from co-operatives from across NSW with the producers there telling the stories of their products and their co-operatives.
The second day was the conference itself, held in another co-operative club, Sydney’s iconic Paddo RSL. The conference was opened by Yasmin Catley MP, who has since become the NSW Opposition’s Deputy Leader. She expressed her party’s traditional links with the co-operative sector and strong support for it.
In the recent NSW election campaign, NSW Labor had committed to establish a new Co-operatives Unit to support existing co-operatives with business development and governance support, as well as advocacy and education programs that showcased the opportunities offered by the collective ownership model of co-operatives.
The morning sessions then featured a keynote address from Executive Chairman (and dairy farmer) Greg McNamara of NSW’s largest co-operative, Norco, which is also now Australia’s largest remaining (and very successful) dairy co-operative based in northern NSW. Greg spoke about the authenticity and transparency that consumers crave. He urged co-operatives to stay true to their core values and build a proposition that sets them apart from their competitors.
A facilitated panel session followed with keynote speakers seeking to draw out the challenges for co-operatives in the contemporary environment. Greg, representing a mature producers co-operative, was juxtaposed with co-founder Robyn Kaczmarek of The Co-operative Life, a relatively new workers’ co-operative delivering a new labour market co-operative model of community social care services. These speakers were balanced with the reality from the regulator: NSW Commissioner for Fair Trading Rose Webb.
One of the key outcomes from this session was an agreed need for improved education and training for the sector in all matters of governance, law and accounting. Co-ops NSW will be following this up with NSW Fair Trading and continue to support this as a priority.
A second panel, made up of academics who research co-operatives and including four professors from the University of Sydney, the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Newcastle, then discussed their latest co-op research projects and the post-graduate program in Co-operatives Management and Organisation at Newcastle.
In the afternoon, break out sessions were held for housing co-operatives, sustainable food retailing co-operatives and co-operatives in the regions while other attendees spoke with specialist co-operative service providers in the Expo.
The housing co-operatives tackled several challenging issues they face in delivering affordable co-operatively-run housing. The sustainable food retailing co-operatives resolved to form an aggregated purchasing “co-op of co-ops” to take advantage of their purchasing power together. The regional co-operatives established new links and networks and shared their most successful practices.
Attendees came from as far away as north Queensland, Victoria and South Australia, and other co-operative industries that were represented at the conference included the arts, taxis, trade supplies, fishing, renewable energy, insurance, video game development, legal services, labour hire and, of course, agriculture.
United by their co-operative structure, this was a great opportunity for co-operative leaders to network and learn from each other new ways to build and strengthen their co-operatives.
The resurgence of co-operative enterprise in Australia is well underway as new generations realise the benefits of common ownership and control, of having a unique framework to operate under via the International Co-operative Principles, and of the regular and active support required of co-operative members.
Co-operatives are proud old and new members of the New Economy.
Co-ops NSW has already commenced planning for its 2020 conference. In even years the conference will be larger with an intention to include international content. The different sectors where co-operatives operate will also be explored in greater depth. The dates are not set yet but start making plans to be in Sydney for late July 2020.
An online record of the conference will shortly be available at the Co-ops NSW website nsw.coop. Co-ops NSW is a peak body for co-operatives. Its members are co-operatives and it exists to support, promote and represent co-operative enterprise.