Now is our chance to build back better for regional Australia. Co-ops and mutuals can play a leading role
17 August 2020 at 6:06 pm
Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals CEO Melina Morrison looks at how air travel and local news could benefit from a little more cooperation and shares examples from Canada on what this could look like.
Two major challenges for regional Australians are loss of mobility through air route closures and loss of local news coverage. Although these trends were apparent before the onset of COVID-19, the pandemic has dramatically escalated the rate at which these essential services disappear with potentially disastrous consequences for regional Australians.
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear where our traditional business models are broken. Communities need new solutions.
These issues are not unique to regional Australia. Canada also confronts the challenge of serving regional communities across a vast territory. An interesting shift in the business models used for air travel and regional media is seeing Canadians look to the self-help structure of cooperatives for solutions.
When it comes to transport, a major issue is that Australia’s regional routes have yet to reach the market scale where operators can compete while ensuring profitability and viability. The COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions have further complicated matters, with Qantas saying airlines are in the middle of the biggest crisis the industry has ever faced and could require government support beyond March 2021.
Furthermore, the ACCC has been directed by the treasurer to monitor Australia’s air travel market over the next three years, with a particular focus on early signs of damage to competition, which it said could harm the long-term interests of consumers.
To address a similar problem in Canada, regional residents are gearing up to become shareholders in their own airline, with a new cooperative in Quebec set to fill the void left by Air Canada’s shrinking presence.
The cooperative, Treq, has identified a potential network of 19 regional domestic routes to service at lower ticket cost.
Treq hopes to raise $66 million to fund the new venture and plans to own a fleet of up to five 78-seat Q400 aircraft. It expects to be operating services by 2021.
Founding member Serge Larivière told the Montreal Gazette that the cooperative “is a means more than an end”.
“It’s a way for us (the regions) to develop economically, for our tourism, for our social lives. There is a scope much larger than just another company establishing itself in the region,” he said.
Larivière criticised the private airline sector as failing to meet the needs of those living in regional areas, a sentiment echoed in Australia.
Australia already has a long, proud history of transport and mobility mutuals, including BCCM members NRMA, RACQ and RACWA. Why not put cooperative principles in place in the skies, too? Cooperating could provide a viable and sustainable solution.
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.
In his report Good News: A co-operative solution to the media crisis, writer Dave Boyle argues, “The news media are hungry to produce their output in more financially resilient ways, whilst the public are hungry for a news media they can trust. Cooperatives can do both.”
Canada has already shown that the cooperative model can work for regional media.
Less than a year after bankruptcy, Quebec’s Le Soleil, a French-language daily newspaper, has doubled its subscriber count after shifting to a cooperative model.
In August 2019, the newspaper’s parent organisation Groupe Capitales Médias went bankrupt, putting the future of half of the region’s French-language daily newspapers at risk of closure.
Gilles Carignan, director general of Le Soleil, said so many simultaneous closures “would be disastrous for information and trust around Quebec”.
In the days following the Groupe Capitales Médias announcement, the newsrooms launched a flash subscription campaign, followed by a donation drive two months later. The combined push brought in around CAD$3 million.
With clear evidence of an audience willing to support the production of news, Le Soleil and its five sister outlets came together under a new umbrella cooperative.
According to IJNet, all 350 employees across the six outlets – including 120 at Le Soleil – agreed to contribute five per cent of their salaries to support their respective co-ops.
“Both employees and readers can become co-op members. While newsroom staff will always comprise the majority, reader members will be able to assist in some decision-making around the papers’ operation,” the article said.
Rather than continuing the search for new owners, the newspapers have decided to make the cooperative a long-term strategy for sustainability.
Canada isn’t an outlier for making media cooperatives work: the most successful media cooperative in the United States is the Associated Press, which uses a shared services model. The UK also has examples of successful media cooperatives, such as London-based New Internationalist magazine.
Australia’s media professionals and regional communities should look for similar opportunities to cooperate to prevent being left without a reliable source of local and regional news.
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.