Let our co-operative spirit stand

Dr Bruce Baskerville address, Friday 22 November 2019, The Ballroom, Government House, Perth

Good morning everyone, and thank you Melina for your kind introduction.

I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, and acknowledge and respect their continuing culture.  I also wish to recognise Her Majesty and her representative, in whose house we meet this morning.

“Let Our Co-operative Spirit Stand” is a phrase from the speech given by Matthew Padbury, chairman of Westralian Farmers Ltd, to the 200 delegates who gathered in the Westralian Farmers building in Wellington Street on 3 July 1919, 100 years ago today, to form the Co-operatives Federation of Western Australia.[1]  Padbury’s speech, made just 5 days after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war with Germany, was given at a time of increasing social unrest.  It is notable on several counts, including the way it reveals the centrality of a social purpose to the co-operative movement – or, as we might say it now, putting in to action the 7th co-operative principle, ‘Caring for the Community’. Padbury said

I feel that we must face this unrest with good broad views, and act so that we deserve the confidence of all sections of the community.  The suspicion between class and class seems to me to be ever increasing.  This is extremely regrettable, and I trust that our actions as co-operators will inspire every section of the community with confidence in us, so that, by our example, they may profit as we hope to do. 

Let our co-operative spirit stand for all it is worth, and let us, by united effort and wisdom, face the task ahead of us in all sincerity.[2]

Matthew Padbury was no revolutionary.  The ‘squire of Koojan’, his country property, might be more a more revealing title.  With other members of his family he was one of the State’s ‘leading men’, influenced by Anglican high church liturgical and social philosophies, and he often spoke on the importance of the co-operative movement in making mutually agreeable relationships between different groups in the community, especially between town and country.[3]  His 1919 speech, touching on leading by example, talking of inspiring confidence, of being trusted by the community and of co-operators being drawn from all sections of the community, reflects not only his personal values but those of a movement based on co-operation and mutuality.

1919 was a time of great change, and co-operatives history in Western Australia is linked with several such times, such as the end of convict transportation in 1868, the gold rushes of the 1890s, the end of the Great War and again the end of World War Two.  But times of change have not always been conducive to new forms of co-operation or mutual enterprise. 

The decades of the 1960s and 70s, which for many in the co-operatives sector in WA was marked by Britain’s entry into the Common Market and a relentless rural population decline, was nevertheless a time of opportunities for other mutual enterprises.  With the development of consumer law during this period came, for instance, the rapid development of credit unions which, after 1979, increasingly charted a separate path to the co-operative movement.  It was also a time of opportunities for some new co-operatives such as the Capricorn Society, which was based in the expanding metropolitan area and could provide services to an equally expanding demographic of new car owners with cash to spend on their vehicles.

A time of change is not, in itself, a prerequisite for new forms of social organisation to emerge.  The two may coincide, but it is not a hard and fast rule.  Times of great change can just as easily be reflected in turning to what might appear to be enduring and solid institutions, to hunkering down and waiting for the storm to blow over.  It would take the wisdom Padbury spoke of to know which is the right choice.

History will not offer easy guidance on this, as the Co-operatives Federation’s own story reveals.  The withdrawal from the co-operatives movement in the mid-1980s of Wesfarmers, the de-mutualised successor to Padbury’s Westralian Farmers Ltd., came as a terrible shock to numerous small co-operatives.  Many still called it their “parent company”, to which they could turn in troubled times.  It took nearly two decades, and some dead ends, before the Co-operatives Federation returned to its leading role in the broader co-operatives movement.  The broader swathe of economic, financial and deregulatory changes of that period partly account for what happened, but social and cultural changes also played a significant role.  The co-operatives movement was not just abandoned by its parent company, but it also lost the old ‘ancestral pile’ of the Wesfarmers Building in Wellington Street, a building that had featured in generations of advertising as “The house that I built”, and it lost the intangible value of institutional memories and personal connections that only accumulate over several generations.  The times, the zeitgeist, can seem like obvious or easy explanations, but successful co-operatives and mutuals are able to utilise and adapt their business model to the times.  Resilience and adaptability are just as important as ‘the times’ in understanding why some fail but others adapt and grow.

A Cambridge University specialist in local history, David Dymond, recently wrote:

Local history can genuinely contribute to the life of whole communities … when sound local history is published or promoted, the community in question (whatever its size) can never be the same again: it now knows more about itself, its place in history.  Local historians are citizens with civic obligations, and … should not be afraid to lobby when … important issues are publicly debated.  This is not easy, and frequently leads to disappointment, but the moral and educational obligation is clear and pressing on us all.[4]

It doesn’t take much to change the references to local history and local historians to co-operatives and mutuals, to co-operators and members.  As I think Padbury suggested, co-operatives and mutuals, like historians, have civic obligations to something more than just their immediate interests.  Or, as Tom Bath, another notable Western Australian co-operator of the 1930s said,

Successful co-operative effort has a beneficial influence on the character and morale of participants who understand and practice its underlying principles, which are mainly ethical in aim.[5]

And, just as thriving local communities have to not just tolerate but openly welcome and engage with new members, it is instructive to consider how thriving co-operatives and mutuals have also done so.

Co-operative Bulk Handling, or CBH, after much public debate during the 1920s and 30s, some of it misinformed and even misleading, essentially invented and developed the whole infrastructure for the bulk handling of wheat and other grains in WA, hand in hand with the expansion of country rail networks (both government and private lines), that underpinned the development of Western Australia’s wheatbelt in the interwar years.  Whole new technologies and work practices had to be developed and negotiated.  At the same time local co-operative stores grew up along with new railway sidings as new communities were born. 

In a similar vein, RACWA today has created the ‘electric highway’, a network of electric vehicle charging stations between Perth and Augusta (or Nannup or Bridgetown).  As with the CBH story, the recharge stations are associated with the public highway system, and have been developed on the back of great technological changes in transport, in this instance in both electric vehicles and low carbon emission fuels.  The ‘cargo’ they transport is not grain but motorists and tourists, but in each case they have provided new and expanding services to both their own members and the general public, partly by drawing upon new technologies.  ‘The times’ are important, but so has been a responsiveness or accountability to the future needs of members, a capacity for farsightedness and taking action, or what Matthew Padbury might have meant by ‘good broad views’, that inspired confidence and trust in and by members and non-members alike.

Those of you who visited the Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op export facility yesterday will have noticed similar factors at work.

The tourism industry is one sector that offers new modes in which to explore such options, as well as know more of your own histories.  Being a historian, I hope you’ll forgive me for ‘feeling obliged’ to point to the local and regional ‘new museums’ now in the pipeline, based around distributed collections, digitisation, accountability to previously unrepresented communities, ideas of ethical and civic spaces and, to paraphrase David Dymond, communities ‘knowing more about themselves’.  You’ll need to forget everything you thought you ever knew about museums!  For co-operatives and mutual enterprises, this is an area of engagement with can mean partnerships with the (still largely voluntary) community sector, and broader connections with the tourism, travel and food sectors, and with as Matthew Padbury said, ‘inspiring every section of the community’.  It can help the whole co-operatives and mutual enterprises sector advance the 7th co-operative principle, Concern for the Community, and deepen the social license of enterprises that associate themselves with these new and evolving cultural institutions.

The history of the co-operative movement, as well as the broader mutual enterprises sector, suggests that ongoing research and analysis, and comprehending and responding to, and even leading, social and cultural changes, as well as economic factors, resilience and a capacity for adaptation, and of course, ‘the times’, were all significant in contributing to the success of the sector in Western Australia.  History is complicated, but this is a history that has a wider application across the whole CME sector in Australia.  

I’ll conclude by reiterating Matthew Padbury’s final sentence to the gathered co-operators back in 1919:

Let our co-operative spirit stand for all it is worth, and let us, by united effort and wisdom, face the task ahead of us in all sincerity.

Thank you.

Historical co-op photo gallery

Our thanks to Coops WA for making the below beautiful historical co-op images available.

 

[1] Bruce Baskerville, Let Our Co-operative Spirit Stand: A centenary history of resilience and adaptation in the Co-operatives Federation of Western Australia, 1919-2019, Centre for Western Australian History, UWA 2019

[2] ‘Co-operation | The Farmers’ Federation | Annual Conference of Delegates’, Daily News, 4 July 1919: 6

[3] ‘Co-operative Development | Interview with Mr MT Padbury’, West Australian, 18 September 1920: 6; ‘Pen Pictures of Leading People | Mr MT Padbury’, Daily News, 20 June 1934: 6

[4] David Dymond, ‘Does local history have a split personality?’, in Christopher Dyer et al (eds), New Directions in Local History since Hoskins, University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield 2011: 24

[5] Hon Thomas Bath, ‘A Coming of Age’, 1935, quoted in Baskerville 2019: 77

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