Australian SDG inquiry delivers dissenting reports and questions on political commitment

Tiles featuring the Sustainable Development Goals icons. Photo by: BR&U / Bernal Revert / CC BY-NC

CANBERRA — Australia’s parliamentary inquiry into the Sustainable Development Goals has come under scrutiny, with a dissenting report from two members of the government casting doubt on the ability of the review to make a serious impact on Australia’s implementation of the SDGs.

For key stakeholders — including private sector businesses committed to sustainable practices — clarity, direction and education from the government on priorities and purposes of the goals is important for their own progress and deliverables. They are demanding commitment from the new government that will be at the helm of Australia after the May elections.

The final report found that full implementation of the SDGs, both as part of national and international policy, would provide benefit to Australia. But the lack of awareness and visibility of the goals among government communications and policy is creating barriers in achieving this potential.

The dissenting report, however, suggests that Australia is already doing enough, and meaningful action was preferred to “benchmarks for benchmarks’ sake.”

Understanding the findings and recommendations

The inquiry was established in December 2017 with the aim of determining the understanding and awareness of the SDGs across the Australian government and in the wider Australian community; Australia’s plans for implementation and monitoring as part of domestic policy and official development assistance; and the costs and opportunities from implementing the goals.

While the report found that implementation through Australia’s aid program has been done well, leveraging off the work previously done to implement the Millennium Development Goals into the aid program, there are significant gaps in domestic awareness and implementation. This is caused by the lack of a national implementation plan.

The creation and publication of a national SDG implementation plan was a key recommendation of the report to provide detail on national priorities with regular reports outlining Australia's performance against the goals.

The style of Australia’s reporting of SDG achievements as part of the voluntary national review also came under fire, with the report urging the use of data to better monitor and evaluate implementation, supporting greater transparency with the Australian Government's online reporting platform on the SDG indicators to provide the foundation for regular analysis and reports at least every two years.

But to improve visibility widely, the report found that the federal government needs to show greater leadership, embedding the goals into websites, strategies, and policies and budget reporting. It must also better utilize cross-jurisdictional government committees to discuss, support and deliver the goals. Stronger cross-sector engagement and targeted communication for specific stakeholder groups were also among the recommendations.

The dissenting report

The final report found opportunities to improve services and equality in Australian society and among neighboring regions through the SDGs, as well as enhanced economic benefit from businesses implementing socially conscious and sustainable business strategies. But not all agreed that embedding the goals throughout government practices would achieve better outcomes.

Two of the four coalition senators overseeing the inquiry, from the sitting government, released their dissenting report.

“Coalition Senators firmly contend that Australia as the most free, democratic and prosperous nation in the world should be considered as the gold-standard in terms of all of the SDGs,” the dissenting report from Senators James McGrath and Eric Abetz reads.

“While there is always room for improvement, Coalition Senators are disappointed by the approach taken by Labor and Greens which focuses on over-regulating the implementation of these goals rather than either celebrating the positive situation Australia is in and how we can better support lagging nations around the world to implement the SDGs.”

While McGrath and Abetz saw value in the SDGs within the delivery of the Australian aid program, they saw little value in changing domestic strategies to align with the goals and criticized the United Nations for focusing on the SDGs and their implementation in Australia over other global human rights issues.

“We are concerned with the continued approach of the United Nations in investing time and resources in assessing Australia’s technical compliance with both the SDGs and other areas of government policies while turning a blind eye to genuine human rights abuses elsewhere in the world.”

Calls from the private sector

Among the sectors calling for greater alignment on government policy and strategy with the SDGs is the private sector through the Global Compact Network Australia. GCNA represents banks, extractive industries, telecommunications companies, the retail sector and more — businesses that are aligned through their goal to deliver sustainable and responsible business practices.

“Broadly speaking, business is supportive of there being a lot more direction coming from government and those recommendations provide a great framework to map out what that might look like,” Kylie Porter, executive director at GCNA, told Devex.

“Business is aware that different layers of government have been given the position of being ambassadors for different SDGs. But what is lacking is information around how and what government responsibility is in implementing the SDGs.”

The recommendations from the report, Porter said, provided an important start to building this clarity and framework for national implementation. But the dissenting report created concern that there was no political will to implement the recommendations of the report, which could fall into the vacuum created with all sides of government focusing on the federal elections.

The message from businesses was that they want to better understand the Australian government’s priorities on the SDGs as well as the challenges where it sees a need for private sector can support. They also called for Incentives to support the private sector more broadly to work towards the goals, including those Australia is failing on.

“Whilst we are seeing business continue to take the lead in implementing climate change strategies, Australia scores really poorly on every single indicator against the climate action goals,” Porter said. “Without clear direction and support through national policy, strategies and planning, Australia will struggle to meet these goals. Long-term policy stepping is critical for encouraging private sector investment in solutions that assist in achieving the SDGs.”

What happens now?

The Australian government has three months to respond to the report and its recommendations, with the mid-May deadline for the response expected to be during the election campaign. For key stakeholders including GCNA, there is a sense that the delivery of recommendations is are unlikely to occur before a new government is in place.

GCNA is working with the United Nations Association of Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Australian Council of Social Service and Australian Council for International Development — its partners in the delivery of the Australian SDGs Summit — to focus the next government on implementing the recommendations from the inquiry.

“We’re working through that at the moment, but we are all in firm agreement that an implementation plan needs to be presented at some point,” Porter said.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.