Co-ops and adversity: Examples from Australia

Melina Morrison of apex body BCCM looks to examples in Canada and from Australia’s past to show how co-ops can help people through times of crisis

The Covid-19 has thrown the world into chaos but it has only exacerbated existing challenges – prompting co-op leaders to discuss how the movement can deal with the consequences.

Melina Morrison CEO of Australia’s Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) has discussed some of these issues in piece for the Pro Bono website.

She says Australians were already facing the loss of mobility and communication through air route closures and loss of local news coverage.

“The pandemic has dramatically escalated the rate at which these essential services disappear with potentially disastrous consequences for regional Australians,” she writes. “Fewer transport links and increased travel costs could see existing geographic inequalities exacerbated. With regional newspapers, radio and television stations closing we have already seen the loss of regional voices and media representation in our news.”

 She points to Canada’s co-op movement for answers. Regional residents in Quebec are preparing a co-operative airline – Treq – to fill the gap left by Air Canada’s withdrawal of several regional domestic routes.

Treq has identified a potential network of 19 regional domestic routes to service at lower ticket cost, she writes, and hopes to raise CA$66m to fund the new venture.

It plans to own a fleet of up to five high-performance 78-seat Q400 aircraft. It expects to be operating services by 2021.

She also points to a co-op media venture in which last year rescued a series of regional newspaper titles after their owner Groupe Capitales Médias announced their closure.

Such ventures offer useful lessons for countries like Australia says Ms Morrison.

Related: How Australia’s co-ops responded to bushfires crisis

“Australian already has a long, proud history of transport and mobility mutuals, including BCCM members NRMA, RACQ and RACWA. Why not put co-operative principles in place in the skies, too?

“As for domestic media, Australia has seen an alarming rate of closures across the country, putting regional and rural areas at risk of becoming “news deserts”. 

“According to the ABC, more than 150 newsrooms across the country have closed over the past 18 months, a pattern that has only been hastened by the economic pressures of Covid-19.” 

She adds: “The Covid-19 crisis has been devastating for our regions, but it also provides us with an opportunity to reassess the “business as usual” approach and gives us the chance to build back better.”

Case studies: How Australia’s co-ops have a long history of responding to crisis


After World War I, soldiers from the Light Horse Brigade needed new jobs as they returned to civvy street. Insurance mutual NRMA hired many of them – moving them from horseback to motorbike to form its first roadside assistance patrols. The NRMA’s decision at this time to prioritise the employment of returned servicemen, even those with physical and mental damage from the battlefield, helped the country move to a post-war economy.

The legacy of this early response to challenging circumstances lives on, with the NRMA’s coronavirus response, Operation Light Horse, redistributing resources and staff in order to cope with the unique conditions of the pandemic crisis. Working closely with the community, the NRMA has leveraged its infrastructure and social networks to assist vulnerable Australians including the elderly and those living with disabilities, delivering care packages, medicines and other essential goods.


The Hospital Contribution Fund (HCF) was one of the earliest examples of public health development in Australia. During World War II, it built an air-raid shelter in the basement of its Sydney branch, patrolled day and night by staff volunteers.

Despite the economic and social impacts of the war, HCF’s revenues continued to grow , indicating the high value now placed by the community on an equitable and efficient hospital insurance system.


Westfund, the regional health insurer, provided assistance to farmers in 2002 if they lived in areas hit by drought. They allowed them to retain their membership, while suspending contributions. The Fund faced resistance to the proposal from the federal regulator to the proposal but overcame it after they included the costing of the benefit by the fund’s actuary, which highlighted the viability of the proposal, and the Fund agreed to provide regular reports on the scheme.

The Junee Co-operative

Junee is a rural supply store and supermarket serving a rural town in NSW. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, it increased its membership and returned surpluses despite the uncertain economic climate. It refused to apply the harsh credit policies like its competitors – one of which was accused of obtaining property by quickly foreclosing on residents. The Junee Co-op sustained employment in the town and provided a cash flow to its members through the payment of dividends on purchase and interest on members capital.

CBH is a key player in the grain industry

Co-operative Bulk Handling (CBH)

The CBH Group was founded during the Great Depression through the realisation that a cheap and efficient bulk handling system would reduce growers’ costs and strengthen the struggling wheat industry. In the first year CBH received 42,565 tonnes of wheat. Today it has around 4,200 grower members and is the only major participant in the Australian grain industry owned by growers.

Given the public, industry and government concerns regarding food security and Covid-19, CBH Group wants to make grain stocks transparent at a high level. It will be providing a monthly public report until 1 October that shows wheat and barley stock owned by both growers and marketers in the CBH system. 

Heritage Bank

Heritage Bank started in 1875 as Toowoomba Permanent Benefit Building and Investment Society. The Queensland bank is one of the oldest continually operating financial institutions in Australia. The organisation has persevered through prolonged drought, two world wars and the Great Depression. 

It has also stood out among other banks as being an organisation for everyday people. In its early days its members were made up of labourers and factory hands, the lower ranks of the public service including railway, postal and police workers, teachers and nurses, small businessmen and those who worked in trades. 

Today, it has been offering a support loan for small businesses needing working capital to help get through the impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak. The loans are unsecured up to $250,000 for three years with no repayments for the first six months.