23 May 2022

ACT Government to look at smoothing the pathway for co-operative businesses

| Lottie Twyford
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woman buying food from the co-op

The ACT Greens called on the government to lay the groundwork for the easier formation of ACT co-operatives such as The Food Co-op Shop and Cafe. Photo: File.

The ACT Government has agreed to look into how it could make the co-op business structure easier to both understand and access.

A business wholly owned by its members, who are also its workers and customers might sound far-fetched, but the success of the Food Co-op Shop and Cafe in the city has proven it’s possible.

Thanks to some changes, including an overhaul of its communications systems and the way institutional and historical knowledge were upheld, the Food Co-op pulled through a rough patch a few years ago.

Today it still provides sustainable, organic, reasonably-priced food and runs essentially off volunteer support – and it is one co-operative success story.

There are around 11 co-ops currently operating in the ACT.

READ ALSO Little changes to keep The Food Co-op viable well into the future

The National Health Co-op which went into voluntary administration midway through last year, suffered a different fate.

It worked by members paying a $10 monthly fee for unlimited access to bulk-billed doctors. Although the ACT Government praised it as an innovative model, it failed to find a path to financial viability and folded just over a decade after it opened.

However, the future for new co-operative businesses in Canberra could be looking brighter, thanks to a motion brought forward last week by ACT Greens crossbencher Johnathan Davis, which passed the Legislative Assembly.

Mr Davis’ motion called on the government to consider establishing a unit to assist prospective co-operatives in navigating and understanding how to get established.

parent and child in waiting room

Canberra’s National Health Co-op was a groundbreaking healthcare model but it ultimately failed to find a path to financial viability. Photo: File.

“Co-operatives open the door for regular people with no significant means or prestige in society to become business owners and give back to their communities by doing so,” Mr Davis said in a statement.

“Co-operatives are really popular overseas, but here in Australia they are hard to understand, difficult to set up and their benefits are largely unknown.

“This is unfortunate because co-operatives are often more resilient in economic downturns and create wealth and jobs that stay in the community.”

Mr Davis said co-operatives could help put the business back in the hands of their members rather than shareholders “whose overwhelming interest is in maximising profit”.

ACT Greens MLA Jo Clay, who moved the motion in the Assembly on behalf of Mr Davis, said co-ops could help fight against the economic trend towards gig or insecure work and provide greater job security.

“Businesses can be driven by values and not by profit,” she said.

READ ALSO CEO calls for higher pay to take care of community sector workers

However, Opposition spokesperson for business Leanne Castley argued there was already “a wealth of useful and detailed information” available for anyone who wanted to set up a co-operative business model on the Access Canberra website.

Ms Castley said business owners wanted the government to “get out of the way with the red tape” so they could continue building and growing their businesses.

The government supported the motion, with Minister for Business and Better Regulation Tara Cheyne having noted the government was “supportive of enterprise in all of its forms” and that access to information was necessary.

She said that while information is already provided through Access Canberra, “there is the opportunity to make things simpler and easier for people who may be thinking about this form of enterprise”.

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