17 August 2011

Remarks to the IYC 2012 Cooperatives CEO Summit - Old Parliament House, Canberra

I'm very pleased to be here because I think it is very important to acknowledge the ongoing and outstanding contributions of cooperatives across the Australian community and economic life.

With the upcoming International Year of the Cooperative next year, we have a real opportunity to shine a light on a sector that has done so much over many years.

It is great to be here for what is a gathering of national leaders across the sector. This is the first time that such a gathering has been convened and for my part it is a privilege for me to be here on behalf of the Government to say a few words.

When I think of the significance of the sector, I think for most Australians we don't spend enough time reflecting upon how significant a sector this is. Most Australians don't appreciate the depth of penetration of cooperatives across their community. There are, of course, many household names that are represented in your sector, and then there are many others that are not household names but I think that because of the diversity of industries people don't make the connections with the cooperatives that operate in the sector.

Getting together the way you have, and with the International Year of the Cooperative acting as a focal point to galvanise your cooperation I think that will allow more Australians to appreciate what it is you are, what you've been doing over so many years in this country, and how important you are for us into the future.

Indeed, looking at the figures on cooperatives, there are some 10 million members of cooperatives in Australia. To put that in some context, that is about 3 million more than there are shareholders in the Australian stock exchange. It's a huge cross-section that has a stake in the viability, sustainability and ongoing operation of cooperatives.

If we look at the top 100 cooperatives, collectively they account for an annual turnover of almost $15 billion, which is a significant contribution to economic activity and a significant part of the broader social activity that occurs within our community.

When I think about the things that strike me about cooperatives, there are a number of themes that really stand out. The first is that cooperatives are founded for the mutual benefit of their members and is something that distinguishes cooperatives from other institutions or vehicles that contribute to economic activity in our community.

The second element is that cooperatives are inherently grounded in community. I know in Trent's opening comments, he spoke about the individuals involved in cooperatives who are more worried about retribution from their communities than any government regulator could ever mete out to them. That relates back to the fact that cooperatives emerge around a community or in support of a community, or around a community of interest.

Connected to that is something I'm very passionate about, and that is corporate social responsibility. Cooperatives are well placed and very highly regarded for their commitment to corporate social responsibility. That's something that is intrinsically part of what cooperatives are about. Unlike many corporations that, particularly these days, face the challenge of the competing interests of shareholders on the one hand and other community stakeholders on the other, cooperatives' members are usually their community stakeholders as well.

From my perspective as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, I also have responsibility for competition policy and I think that it's very fair to say that cooperatives have played an important part in a range of sectors in providing a significant competitive dynamic in the marketplace. Where there are larger market participants, cooperatives have often been the vehicle through which smaller participants in the market have been able to work together to ensure they provide a competitive dynamic.

Trent mentioned the Government's commitment to building a new pillar, a fifth-pillar, in the banking sector through the Competitive and Sustainable Banking Package and that is one illustration of the extent to which competition can be a very important consideration in how we assess the overall importance of cooperatives, building societies, mutuals and credit unions in our community.

In making a few concluding remarks, I'd like to focus on the International Year of the Cooperative. This is an opportunity to galvanise the sector within all of its diversity and to shine a spotlight on all of the great work that cooperatives have been doing and continue to do in our community.

I am very pleased that the Government has been able to work with you all on this, and in particular we will have a coin struck, which will ensure that the cooperative will be out there and be the currency that people will have in their pocket. When Australians around the country look down at their dollar coin, they will see the International Year of the Cooperative. I think that presents a great opportunity for the sector. It's also fair to say that there have been many 'International Years' that have come and gone and virtually sunk without a trace. For me, the International Year of the Volunteer is a great example of where this had a profound impact, where a whole range of grassroots activities highlighted the efforts of volunteers right around the country. That may prove to be a good model for cooperatives to be able to see the ways in which you can highlight and publicise the work that you've all been doing and give more Australians an opportunity to learn about cooperatives and how they affect their lives in a positive way.

Thank you for the invitation to be here and make some remarks to the first national cooperative leaders summit. I encourage you to continue your good work and I wish you all the best.