It seems Malcolm Turnbull has failed to achieve almost everything he has set out to do as Prime Minister. Matching achievements with ambitions, results with rhetoric, wins with wishes, it’s a sad and sorry picture.

It seems also that the greater Turnbull’s enthusiasm for a thing, the worse the actual outcome. His most-emphasised ambition on taking the leadership in September 2015 was innovation.

He told a science dinner in October 2015, “Now you have seen the way we have put innovation and science at the centre of our agenda. This is of critical importance, absolutely critical importance, to our success as a nation, to our success in the world.”

After meeting President Barack Obama, he told Australian and US journalists, “Agility is key. For Australia, it’s about being agile, innovative and startups.”

SBS mischievously headlined its report on this meeting: “Turnbull Confident An Agile Australia’s Agile Agility Will Agile Agile”.

We now have the latest scores and rankings for the global innovation index (GII), published annually by Cornell University and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

The GII, according to the WIPO website, “aims to capture the multi-dimensional facets of innovation and provide the tools that can assist in tailoring policies to promote long-term output growth, improved productivity, and job growth.”

Sounds exactly the thing to test the mettle of Turnbull’s prime ministerial calling.

Unfortunately for the embattled PM, Australia now ranks a dismal 23rd in the world, down from 19th the year before — which reflected the state of innovation after two years of Abbott’s leadership. In the two years before that — which reflected Labor’s performance — the ranking was 17th both times — the highest Australia has reached in the 10 years the series has been published.

The top 10 most innovative countries this year are:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Sweden
  3. Netherlands
  4. United States of America
  5. United Kingdom
  6. Denmark
  7. Singapore
  8. Finland
  9. Germany
  10. Ireland

Among the 35 rich, developed countries comprising the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Australia ranks 20th. That is down from 17th last year, overtaken by Israel, Norway and Austria. And down from 15th in the two years prior.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia ranks seventh, behind Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and China. In 2014, Australia was fourth in Asia.

The GII breaks down the score into more than 100 micro areas of performance under seven broad headings:

  1. Institutions
  2. Human capital and research
  3. Infrastructure
  4. Market sophistication
  5. Business sophistication
  6. Knowledge and technical outputs
  7. Creative outputs

Australia has declined in all areas under the Coalition, except market sophistication (we remain ranked ninth in the world). Human capital and research — the broad area of education — has slumped from seventh in the world in the late Labor years to ninth.

Research and development — a component of “human capital and research” — has slumped badly during the Coalition period. From seventh-ranked in 2012 and eighth in 2013, it has slipped to 10th, then 13th, then 13th again.

The worst decline has been in “creative outputs”, under which Australia ranked 12th in the world in 2013. This crashed to 18th last year, and 24th this year.

These findings are confirmed by the annual Competitiveness Index published by the World Economic Forum. One if its critical pillars is “R&D innovation”, in which Australia ranked 27th in the world in 2016. That’s down from 26th in 2015 and 2014.

Awkwardly for the PM, this is not the only area in which he has failed dismally to achieve his objectives. Jobs and growth? Both down. Lower government debt? No, the gross debt has surged from $383.9 billion when Turnbull was elected to $500.1 billion. It is now on its way to $600 billion, according to the May budget papers. Reversing the run of 30 consecutive opinion polls showing Labor was ahead of the Abbott government? No. Turnbull’s string is now 15 and counting.

These all suggest an administration with little focus on Australia’s wellbeing. Coalition MPs seem preoccupied with internal brawling or using their ministerial or committee roles to jockey for lucrative jobs after politics.

Maybe it’s time for Turnbull to turf the time-servers and promote the promising. Now there’s an innovative idea.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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