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Hugh Riminton: The Dutchman Who Predicted Our 2019 Election -- In The 1960s

The 2019 election result flummoxed lots of people. But was it predicted by a Dutchman way back in the 1960s?

Geert Hofstede is now 90 years old. But five decades ago he made a discovery about Australia that Scott Morrison understood and Bill Shorten didn’t.

In the 1960s, Hofstede worked for IBM, back then the world’s most exciting company. As it spread across the globe, it tripled its workforce in the 1960s to 270,000 people.

But it had a problem. Operating in many cultures, there were huge headaches in working out how to manage and motivate staff.

In the 1960s IBM was the world’s most exciting company. (Image: Getty)

IBM turned to Hofstede, a social psychologist. His cultural study of the 70-odd countries where IBM was active resulted in more than 100,000 detailed questionnaires. From them he settled on six pairs of opposing ideas.

One pair ranked cultures on whether they were “individualistic” or “collectivist.”

It turns out, Guatemala was the most collectivist. It scored just 7/100 on the individualism scale.

Plainly, to motivate an IBM worker in Guatemala, offering a cash bonus to an individual worker might be less effective than producing an incentive to benefit the whole group.

To no-one’s surprise, the most individualistic culture was the United States. It scored 91/100.

Australia, unexpectedly, came next on 90/100.

How could this be so?

Australian cultural myths are pretty clear.

We’re an egalitarian society. Mates look after mates. Rejecting British hierarchies and looking out for each other was how we survived convict transportation, the goldfields, the hard work of re-shaping the land, the horrors of the trenches.

Our most revered national image is the ANZAC. Its embodiment is Simpson and his donkey,  repeatedly risking enemy fire to bring the wounded to safety at Gallipoli. Simpson was killed looking out for his mates. His statue stands at the Australian War Memorial. We see in it the best of who we are.

Our most revered national image is the ANZAC. Its embodiment is Simpson and his donkey. (Image: AAP)

Australia is also the home of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. We can admire exceptional people -- especially sports heroes. But we turn on them if they get “up themselves.”

This was the Australia Bill Shorten was appealing to when he offered higher taxes on the well-off, to fund such things as free dental care, cost-free cancer treatment, and free childcare. Shorten wanted electric cars and real action on climate change, with Australia limiting its use of abundant low-cost energy to improve the prospects of the world. The question of how much these policies might cost the economy were dismissed as “dumb” and “ignorant.”

The “top end of town” would pay for it all through taxes on high incomes and the removal of franking credits from their well-padded retirement schemes.

Hofstede knew the Australia Bill Shorten was appealing to. (Image: AAP)

And if our national myths truly reflected who we are, Shorten would have won.

Hofstede knew better.

Americans are openly individualistic.

In the US, if you work hard and obey the law, you and your dependent family will find prosperity and success. You will be rewarded for your skills and effort. Not your community, not your tribe -- you.

That is the American Dream.

Australians equate individualism with selfishness.

But we simply use a different word.

Scott Morrison did not campaign on our rights as individuals as he laid into the Labor Big Tax/Big Spend scheme. He spoke of Australians’ aspirations.

Morrison was appealing to individualism. (Image: AAP)

The language is different. The message the same. Bill Shorten was appealing to the collective view. Morrison to individualism. Hofstede knew the Liberal leader had the inside track.

Among Hofstede’s other tricks was to scale cultures on Long or Short-term thinking, and on whether they are Masculine or Feminine.

Australia rates strongly as Masculine and Short-term.

“A Masculine society [is] tough,” says Hofstede Insights Australasia managing director David Morley. “Contest is natural, consensus is not.”

“In a Feminine society, the focus is on the quality of the journey, caring for those less fortunate in society and caring about relationships. Much of the Labor policy position was addressing a more Feminine way of thinking and living, reinforced with the longer-term outlook of patience and consideration.”

But did that misread Australia?

Hofstede knew the Liberal leader had the inside track. (Image: AAP)

“The Labor plan was massive, from tackling tax and wealth to climate and health,” says Morley. “It was societal change on a scale like we hadn’t seen before.”

The problem is, says Morley, “change in a short-term oriented country is in most cases going to be difficult.”