An idea of mine

April 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm (Tom)

While I’m not a member of the Greens, I have a lot of sympathy for their positions on issues. Over my voting life, I’m pretty sure I’ve put 1 next to a Green more often than an ALP member, despite having handed out for the latter party on a number of occasions. It’s possible this makes me a a hypocrite or a tribalist, although I tend to think of it as an attachment to the principles of the ALP combined with a dissatisfaction about their seeming reluctance to put those principles into practice. Anyway, it seems to me that one of the key problems the Greens face is a lack of institutional support. The symbiosis (though occasionally toxic) between the ALP and the unions is a key factor in the ALP’s longevity and ability to call upon trained and committed people for operational and leadership positions. The connections between the Liberal parties and the business and legal communities provide them with a similar bank of resources and personnel, though this broader catchment is more informally attached. The Nationals, for their part, have a steady base of support through the farmer’s federation, the CWA, and rural (non-mining) business and social groups. The Greens, however,  are limited to the occasional support of environmental groups; which are a hotch-potch of feuding, single-interest groups reliant on public charity or unstable public funding. It’s notable that most of their parliamentary representation do not have a background in organisations like Greenpeace or the Conservation Foundation, which might have provided the kind of hands-on experience and political training they desperately require; nor in ostensibly sympathetic groups like microfinance banks, environmental regulation agencies, green power businesses, internet providers or tourism operators, which might give them the kind of policy expertise (and financial support) they often seem short on in the very areas they are most committed to reforming.

If the Greens want to get beyond 13%, they’re going to need to develop not only a set of policies that appeal to people, but a party structure that’s not only capable of sustaining itself (they’ve got that), but growing, organising in areas of weakness, and marshalling and directing large quantities of money, resources and personnel during election campaigns.

Beyond a few derisory efforts at “progressive business forums” (a contested territory that Left Labor has already colonised, the Greens lean heavily on environmental groups. However, the key problem is that every such group considers itself a peak body – single-handedly assigning itself responsibility for speaking on behalf of the earth. If an environmental peak body can be said to exist, it’s arguable that it’s the Greens Party itself playing this role. This leaves them inflexible on environmental issues – unable to differ on policy with any of its constituent groups without risking their defection from the cause. The ALP can disagree with its unions occasionally (all too often, perhaps), because the ACTU acts as a buffer between them, allowing dissention without all-out war.

So, what should they do about it? In a sense, this is the wrong question – a party shouldn’t theoretically need to build its own institutions – the same community that the party represents (if it’s large and dynamic enough to be desirous of representation) should be expressing itself and organising in other ways, the most successful expressions of which would become the stable insitutional wing of the party. But since this doesn’t really appear to have occurred for the Greens, they do need to consider what kind of institutions would best support and express their particular philosophies; and how they can sustain themselves and hopefully provide financial support for the party from a position in the private sector.

Now, to that idea I first mentioned.

In Australia, right now, governments of all hues are determined to build “open markets” in areas that were once public monopolies.  Think NBN, think electricity, think primary health care, but also wheat, fish, timber, ore, and other commodities that have become increasingly federally regulated in recent years. The market structures being implemented are characterised by the artificial creation of two rigidly seperated arenas – a “wholesale” market and a “retail” market. The wholesale market is tightly regulated, perhaps dominated by a public monopoly, and players in this market are prohibited by law from intervening in or directly entering the “retail” market. The retail market, on the other hand, has a limited choice of suppliers, but can rest easy in the knowledge that their retail competitors are only able to purchase their wares at exactly the same rates, and under the same conditions as they are. The point, of course, is to protect and control supplies, while driving innovation, entrepreneurship and product differentiation at a retail level.

There is one business model that enjoys significant tax advantages, consumer engagement, and flexibility, and which should be very much to the philosophical taste of the Greens – the co-operative.  Why not use the organisational resources of the Greens to start seeding co-operatives designed to tap into these market “grids”, and pass on the benefits of consumer control and low NGO tax rates to consumers? A renewed focus on co-operative businesses would be a great trigger to help the Greens recruit those with hands-on commercial expertise and an understanding of small business, tax and regulatory burden.

Co-ops do have a major problem – diseconomies of scale. As the size of a co-operative grows, the necessity of providing voice and a vote to its members becomes more and more of a burden – especially over basic operational matters that businesses deal with summarily. For “grid” markets, like power and internet, that’s not a problem – there’s no real economies of scale to be found (because bulk pricing from the wholesaler or vertical integration are disallowed), so growth is not an imperative. If your co-op ISP (the most obvious “first step”, to my mind) is having trouble dealing with customers in two exchanges, it makes more sense to simply split it into two co-operatives, dealing with one exchange each.

One hitch is that these “open markets” often seem to have a gateway cost – a big fixed price charged for access to the network, after which each additional customer or unit of product comes with a much smaller, variable charge. If that remains the case with the NBN, then it might fall to the Greens (or whoever funds them) to set up a “peak body” for the co-operatives – a single provider that pays the big fixed costs and onsells retail amounts to the local co-operatives. Preferably, to maintain the tax advantages, this would be a not-for-profit organisation, which would also give it more ability to advocate on behalf of its “constitutent” co-operatives, or get involved in politics (hint, hint).

The support of localised, democratic organisations, providing members with a tangible benefit that they could not otherwise access? That was the formula that saw Australian Labor parties increase their vote from 10% in the 1890s to more than 50% by 1911. And I’m pretty sure that with a bit more vision and little less entitlement, the Greens could achieve something similar.

In Australia, I could only find one internet co-op; which seems to have closed down in the last few years, unfortunately: http://www.cacom.uts.edu.au/articles/profiles/netc.html

However, there are a number in the US – it’d be worth finding out how they work, and what services they provide.

http://magnoliaroad.net/

http://www.rric.net/

 

Depending on what I’m doing next year, I might seek out a technical expert, get a NSW govt. business development grant and see if I can’t put together some kind of business plan, actually. Anyone else interested?

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5 Comments

  1. juliadactyl said,

    I love co-operatives, and I would be extremely interested in seeing how this progressed. I am particularly pro-co-operative as an alternative to corporations, which I inherently distrust, because I am a FILTHY LEFTIE.

  2. KingAl said,

    Haha, when I was reading that I was thinking “Well, why not just *do* it?”, so I would be totally up for helping out if you looked further into it. I don’t have any particular expertise, though, aside from general tech savvy.

  3. Danoot said,

    I like the internet.

  4. notoriousharv said,

    From the maybe 50% of that I understood, that sounds like a snacky idea.

  5. chromefist said,

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