We recently asked Professor Greg Patmore to write about the value of the archival collection managed by Australian Mutuals History to the work that he has been doing as part of the Co-operatives Research Group at the University of Sydney. In his article, presented below, Professor Patmore advocates strongly for the value of historical research, supported by the evidence held in archives, in providing frameworks for understanding the development of co-operatives in Australia and their impact on the national economic and social fabric.
Australian Mutuals History, History and the Visual Atlas of Australian Co-operatives History Project
By Professor Greg Patmore
Australian Mutuals History (AMH) is Australia’s most comprehensive archive for studying the history of Australia’s customer owned banks (COB), which includes credit unions, building societies and mutual banks. AMH’s documentary collections, oral histories and on-line database are crucial for co-operative historians. When dealing with issues in relating to COBs, historical analysis allows researchers to develop dynamic rather than static theoretical frameworks. Underlying the historical approach is a critique of the static approach taken to theorization by the dominant social sciences such as economics and psychology. Theoretical perspectives that fail to take account of a changing economic, political and social climate have limited explanatory power.
One of the problems that historical researchers face is the notion of presentism. It denies the relevance of the past and claims that history unlike the natural or social sciences is idiographic in that it explores details of unique and irreproducible events. It ignores that historians can develop long-term theoretical perspectives. Presentism can increase risk as organisations may adopt the latest fads, which may be previous failed ideas renamed. Why did ideas fail in earlier periods? Are the conditions for failure still present today? Historical research allows us to explore these questions and provide another perspective for contemporary debates. Historical research also creates memory and challenges ‘organisational amnesia’, further mitigating risk by allowing us insights into the failures and successes of financial co-operatives.
AMH is playing a significant role in the Visual Atlas of Australian Co-operatives History Project, which is co-ordinated by Associate Professor Nikola Balnave (Macquarie University), Professor Olivera Marjanovic (UTS) and Emeritus Professor Greg Patmore (The University of Sydney). The project focuses on all forms of co-operatives in Australia including retail co-operatives, agricultural co-operatives and financial co-operatives, such as credit unions, and co-operative building societies. It also includes co-operative federations and auxiliary organisations such as co-operative women’s guilds. The project draws upon a range of data sources. It is the first to use the National Library Trove newspaper database to develop a long-term picture of the development of a business model, particularly for the nineteenth century. The general data relating to the development of Australian co-operatives is obtained from a variety of sources including AMH and the National Library of Australia. This material is supplemented by public sources such as newspapers, particularly at community level, published co-operative histories, parliamentary papers and debates, and material sent to the various Registrars of Co-operative Societies. Another dimension of the project is a series of detailed case studies to allow greater insights into the growth and decline of co-operatives.
The data collected is organised on a Visual Atlas of Australian Co-operatives, which currently has the historical data of 2,154 co-operatives at 1,418 locations, including 386 financial co-operatives, plus additional data for many more currently being processed. The earliest example of a building society was the Adelaide and Suburban Building Society founded in 1847 and a credit union was the Co-operative Credit Bank of Victoria established in 1905. The Visual Atlas is implemented using state-of-the-art data visualisation software called Tableau. The main data inputted include location, date of operation, type of co-operative, membership, employment and finances. The financial data includes assets, turnover, liabilities and surpluses/losses. Locations include, for example, branch stores and produce handling facilities. The information is inputted from data sets, such as Trove and Registrars reports, that examine co-operatives over long periods, rather than short term data that may cover only one or two years. The data highlights trends and allow patterns of growth and decline to be visible with only a small proportion of the population of co-operatives. As more data is inputted in the Atlas these patterns will become clearer. The Atlas currently contains data up to the present and it is planned to make this a permanent resource for co-operatives and the public.
The Atlas enables the analysis and visualisation of data by the researchers to develop explanation for changes in size of the co-operative movement over time and space. While the average life span for all co-operatives and financial co-operatives is 24 years, the average life span for agricultural co-operatives is 33 years and worker co-operatives is 7 years. While a significant reason for the recent decline of agricultural co-operatives is demutualisation, an important reason for the recent decline of financial co-operatives is amalgamation. Researchers can use the Atlas to highlight where co-operatives were concentrated geographically with significant regional centres for co-operative development being Broken Hill, Bathurst, Bendigo and Toowoomba.
Overall AMH is the most significant collection relating to Australian Co-operative History. It allows historians to challenge organisational amnesia and develop dynamic theoretical explanations of COB growth and development. It is playing a crucial role in the Visual Atlas of Australian Co-operatives Project.
Greg Patmore is Emeritus Professor of Business and Labour History and Chair of the Business and Labour History Group and the Co-operative Research Group (CRG) in the School of Business, The University of Sydney. He also chairs the advisory committee of the Chambers Research Collection on the Burren St. campus.