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Turnbull on Innovation - all Talk, no Action?

Kim Brebach - Friday, March 04, 2016

Turnbull on Innovation – all talk | Technoledge

Innovation is the cornerstone of replacement Prime Minister Turnbull's rhetoric, but how innovative is his thinking really? We put the new PM under the microscope and search for innovation. We found it mighty elusive, especially when it came to defence focus and spending. 

‘There has been much talk of agility, and how this is the best time to be lots of things, but by the government’s own admission it has no clear definition on just what constitutes an “innovation company”.’

The quote is from Graeme Philipson at InnovationAus.com. He writes that Mr Turnbull’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), released 3 months ago, made some encouraging murmurings about tax and other incentives for investors and innovative companies. As we said in our post Innovation - Is Australia Getting Serious At Last? that innovation package didn’t even get us back to Square One.

We also quoted Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, who said NISA didn’t go far enough with its $1.1 billion funding boost, since the liberal government had ‘cut more than $3 billion from innovation, science and research initiatives since the 2013 election.’ What he didn’t mention was that Labor had also made deep cuts to research funding, when it was in government.

Innovation, consultation or procrastination?

So where are we now, in March 2016? The latest news is that Treasury invited comment on a Consultation Paper it’s working on. In its invitation, it says that ‘the definition of an innovation company is a cornerstone of this consultation.’ It adds that ‘The Government is keen to hear from stakeholders on the appropriate definition of an innovation company and how the eligibility principles and criteria can leverage off existing industry concepts and business practices.’

After all the claptrap about innovation, shouldn't a former executive of email company Ozemail have some intuition about what innovation might look like? Does he really need input from a bunch of bureaucrats to tell him? Even most of us don’t have to reach for a dictionary to understand the term, so why do we need a consultation paper to take months to explain it?

We understand that Malcolm Turnbull had a tough week, with Bill Shorten stating that he’s ‘shrunk into the job’ and the media asking what happened to the Prime Minister and his bold new vision for Australia? ‘The real Malcolm: agile or fragile?’ asked the Sydney Morning Herald. The Telegraph suggested that Mr Turnbull suffered from political paralysis.

Defending the Indefensible

‘We will spend money we don't have to defend against a country we can't defend against.’ Mustafa Erem, Letters to the SMH.

The one recent occasion where we saw Malcolm Turnbull resolute was when he delivered the Defence White Paper. If there is one area where innovation is desperately needed – not just in thinking – it is in the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO).

The new Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull had every reason to say: ‘Let’s have another look at this white paper,’ but instead, he just blindly agreed to the ADO’s plan, as Tony Abbott would have done. Mr Turnbull is supposed to have a brilliant mind and be an excellent inquisitor. This was a great opportunity to position himself as a hero and today's man. He didn't. And, with so much money at stake, coudn't he at least have considered spending some on innovative Australian technologies? (Source of image below: Sydney Morning Herald.)

Mr Turnbull also had a golden opportunity to question the planned purchase of 72 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (now at a cost of $17 billion and rising; when we last wrote about it it was $12 billion).

Within 24 hours of gaining office in Canada,  incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he’d cancel Canada’s order for a similar number of F-35s to the Aussie order, and look for a cheaper option. We’ve written about the troubled F-35 at length. The short version is that the F-35 is over-engineered, overweight, overpriced and overdue. In addition, its range is just 2,220 km and we have no aircraft carriers, so it's a defence asset that can't even fly from Sydney to Cairns.

On March 15, more delays in the F-35 program were reported: the Joint Strike Fighter will now not be ready until 2022, according to The Fiscal Times. The article begins with a direct question: 

'If you were the CEO of an airline business and got a negative report about your new, very expensive aircraft that has been in development for a number of years, what would you say to your engineering and production managers? The report highlights look like this:

  • Key Tests Have Been Delayed Repeatedly
  • Flight Controls Impact Maneuverability
  • Serious Safety Concerns Remain
  • Significant Logistics Software Problems
  • Deferring Cyber Security Testing Leaves Aircraft Vulnerable
  • Maintenance Problems Keep Aircraft Grounded
  • Simulation Facility Failure Threatens Testing Program

We don’t have the technology

When it comes to submarines, which account for $150 million of the $200 million cost of the 10-year ADO hardware upgrade, ‘there are no off-the-shelf options available for Australia,’ according to Dr Adam Lockyer, senior lecturer of security studies at Macquarie University. The first problem is that our new submarines have to be diesel-powered because Australia has no facilities to accommodate nuclear submarines. (Photo at the top id from www.defenseindustrydaily.com)

In other words, we don’t have access to the very technology we need, to manage the huge distances our subs would have to cover to reach trouble spots in the Pacific. ‘Many diesel submarines on the market don't even have the legs to sail from Australia's submarine ports all the way up Australia's coastline,’ says Lockyer, ‘let alone up into Southeast Asia.’

The ADO doesn’t get it

The next challenge is that the ADO has proved itself unfit to assess current submarine technology. Brian Toohey writes in the Financial Review that the chief of our Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barret, ‘was "alarmed" and "professionally embarrassed" by a written answer Defence gave to a parliamentary question about the capability of German submarines.’

When Senator Nick Xenofon asked why the Navy had lost interest in the German submarine bid, the answer was that the Navy was not aware of any German-design submarines that carry US weapons (a requirement). That prompted Xenofon to cite information that was publicly available, which revealed that six other navies operate German-designed subs that carry US weapons.

Toohey writes that ‘The level of incompetence Defence revealed strongly suggests that – despite an abundance of staff – it is not up to the job of providing an objective assessment of the subs on offer from Germany, France and Japan. Despite its shoddy treatment by Defence, Germany has exported 100 subs since World War II, France 20 and Japan none.’

Ironically, the attraction of the Japanese offer for the Abbott government was the advanced welding, stealth and battery technologies they promised to share. Mmmm. Sounds very innovative. 

Australia needs to get better at Hi-Tech

The final challenge is that our Royal Navy’s track record with submarines is best described as a sad story.  (Image above from the Sydney Morning Herald).

The Collins class submarines were plagued by serious technical failures in virtually every area from the beginning, from the noisy engines to the Rockwell combat system. The result was that only 2 of the 6 submarines were seaworthy at any time, because they needed twice as much maintenance as anticipated. In fact there were ‘a number of periods when the RAN had just 1 fully operational submarine available – or less.’ More here.

In other words, four decades after the original tender was let, and for the two decades after the first Collins class subs went into service, we've had virtually no submarine fleet to protect Australia. And we won’t have one for at least another decade, since it will be at least 2030 before the first of the new subs is afloat. That's a long way from today, and the world they'll surface to will be nothing like today. No wonder Mr Turnbull doesn't look happy.

There is one more issue that Tony Mulder at The Mercury raises: ‘It is difficult to identify a realistic conflict scenario in which submarines would play a role in defending Australia,’ he writes. 'We have no aircraft carrier battle groups to protect. Our shipping lanes are hardly likely to be threatened by our trading partners and we have no intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch from covert nuclear submarines. A more realistic strategy is to invest in satellite surveillance complemented by air, sea and land drones that require investment in innovation and high-end manufacturing.’ 

We couldn’t agree more, and here we have to pass the ball back to our Prime Minister. It takes more than some encouraging words; it takes vision that looks beyond the close horizons of what we’ve always done, to over-the-horizon innovation that finds new and smarter ways to do things. 


Kim Brebach
Content Chief

Kim loves people and words. He is our lateral thinker, ideas guy and genius story teller. He can conjure engaging technology yarns out of thin air.

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