CO-OPERATIVES from all around Western Australia came together recently to celebrate Co-operatives WA 100 years of service at a sit down dinner at The University of WA.
UWA's Centre for Western Australian History associate director Bruce Baskerville, who's book titled 'Let Our Co-operative Spirit Stand' was launched on the night, said it was impressive Co-operatives WA had been able to survive the various events which had affected the organisation and State over the past 100 years.
The Co-operative Federation of Western Australia (now called Co-operatives WA) formed in the wake of the First World War in 1919 and throughout its history has been made up of a large number of co-operatives established by Western Australian farmers.
As detailed in Mr Baskerville's book, the organisation's history can be traced back to beyond our shores and well beyond our times.
The first line of descent of the modern co-operative movement came from the establishment in 1844 of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers consumer co-operative, formed by 28 weavers employed at cotton mills in Rochdale, Lancashire, England.
Their objective was to use their collective economic power to buy goods and food at affordable prices.
That started a global phenomenon and the second half of the 19th century saw the rise of co-operatives in the United Kingdom and many other countries, including Australia.
The earliest known co-operative in Australia was the Brisbane Co-operative Society established in 1859, while the beginning of co-operatives in WA date back to 1868, when the P&O Company in Albany formed a co-operative society to purchase goods wholesale from Melbourne and sell them out to their own stores in Albany to reduce their costs.
Subsequently a large number of farmers and producer co-operatives emerged around WA.
Mr Baskerville said Co-operatives WA had been extremely resilient to survive the various events in its history.
"The impact of the Great Depression in the 1930s affected a lot of co-operatives quite negatively, but the Co-operatives Federation was able to assist many of them get through that by teaching its members basic things like how to do their bookkeeping and how to run meetings properly," Mr Baskerville said.
"Then, in the mid 1950s the three men who had been the leaders of Co-operatives WA all died very close to each other, so the federation had to find a new way and a new direction and it took them a little while to do that."
Mr Baskerville said Britain entering the common market had a great impact on WA and its co-operatives, but it was Co-operatives WA along with Westralian Farmers that put in the work to develop new markets.
"At first they thought India was going to be the big saviour, but then it turned out to be Japan and China and also the Middle East," Mr Baskerville said.
"The Co-operatives Federation was able to respond to that challenge and open its eyes and look around, even though it was quite distressed by what was happening with Britain."
Mr Baskerville said perhaps one of the most significant events in Co-operative WA's history was the withdrawal of Westralian Farmers from its close administrative support of the movement, following its public listing in 1984 as Wesfarmers Limited.
"That had an adverse effect on the federation and difficult years followed, but they rose to the challenge and survived."
Last year Co-operatives WA returned to an operating surplus for the first time in many years.
Mr Baskerville said a key takeaway of the book was to realise how important co-operatives and Co-operatives WA were for WA's social and economic future.
"What co-operatives' history shows you is that really, the dynamic of history in WA is about how people work together to achieve common goals," Mr Baskerville said.
"Together you can do something much bigger than anything you can do on your own."
UWA chancellor Robert French, who spoke at the event, said he was surprised to learn the co-operatives and mutual enterprises sector had not been well researched, particularly by economists, given their economic importance.
"The global community in which co-ops and CMEs are part embraces 1.2 billion members, holding at least $20 trillion in assets and generating at least $3 trillion in turnover," Mr French said.
"So I was pleased last year to learn in the interest in the sector at UWA and the collaboration between the council and the university which involves, in particular, the business school.
"But the history which we celebrate is much more than a history of a successful economic movement.
"It is a history rich in community values, of people coming together with a common purpose."
- Contact Co-operatives WA to get a copy of Bruce Baskerville's book, Let Our Co-operative Spirit stand.