Takeaways from the 2018 Australian SDGs Summit

The panel during the second Australian Sustainable Development Goals Summit. Photo by: SDG Summit

MELBOURNE — At the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 13, the second Australian Sustainable Development Goals Summit was an opportunity bring together government, NGOs, research institutions, and the private sector to discuss Australia’s progress and challenges in implementing and monitoring the SDGs.

The inaugural summit, held in Sydney in September 2016, identified key elements required to foster an effective and successful implementation including cross-sector collaboration and partnerships, communication and awareness raising, and appropriate frameworks for monitoring and reporting Australia’s progress on the SDGs.

The country is collating a baseline of data that will enable it to monitor progress on the goals — but some expressed concern over a lack of consultation and collaboration. Here are the takeaways from the day’s discussion.

How does Australia rate for global progress?

Major General Michael Smith, the national president of the United Nations Association of Australia, spoke to the audience about where Australia fits into the global picture on progressing the SDGs.

“It’s not a good news story,” Smith told the audience, explaining that Australia has a lot of work to do to achieve real progress and naming a number of developed and developing countries achieving better progress than Australia — including Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, and New Zealand.

Australian senate inquiry asks what it takes to implement the SDGs

An Australian government inquiry into the Sustainable Development Goals is seeking to understand a range of issues that could impact the implementation of the goals — including government and community awareness, potential costs and benefits, governance structures required to achieve meaningful outcomes, and whether the SDGs should be prioritized in development assistance for better outcomes.

“These countries have established commissions, they’re putting SDGs through their policies, they’ve got budget lines, too,” he said. And while there are examples of this happening in some areas of Australia, including at the local government level with the Melbourne City Council, it is not happening “more broadly,” with leadership at the levels of state and federal governments lacking.

“Australia, we need to lift our game,” he urged. “We’re behind on the SDGs, and two and a half years after having signed up to them, we still lack what I would call a shared national vision. So we’ve got a lot to do and we have to be honest about that.”

The lack of public awareness is a key issue for Smith, who explained that even among the most socially aware audiences, lack of knowledge of the SDGs is poor, with no PR campaigns to draw awareness to the responsibilities Australia has signed up for. And this, he believes, is due to leadership that continues to focus on the SDGs as an issue for developing nations tied to the aid program, and not for challenges at home.

In response, the UNAA has just written to federal politicians asking them to have policies and budget lines tied to the SDGs. In the letter, they link a range of policies — including education, health, and housing affordability — directly to Australia’s international responsibilities under the goals.

But he said it is not necessarily a criticism of the government of the day, with bipartisan politics required. “As Senator Claire Moore has told me, the Labor Party is not out there in front on this particular issue either,” Smith told the audience.

For Australia to improve dramatically on an international stage, Smith said stronger leadership across all parties and jurisdictions of Australian politics was required.

Demonstrating the scale of change needed to address the SDGs

Rod Fehring, chief executive officer of Frasers Property and chair of the Green Building Council of Australia, discussed the challenges nations face with 2030 targets requiring countries to ensure new buildings have a zero-carbon footprint — and be validated. By 2050, the entire built environment is required to have a zero-carbon footprint.

Looking at progress over the past 12 years, Fehring demonstrated the challenges ahead both in Australia and globally — and the limited time left in which to achieve massive change.

“Sadly the last 12 years has not seen a significant change, or a sufficient scale of adoption of technologies to enable the built environment to achieve zero carbon,” he told the audience.

Combined, new retail and commercial buildings with a low carbon rating represents about 27 percent of new floor space added to Australia’s built environment over the past 12 years. In the residential sector, less than 1 percent of new buildings achieved a zero-carbon footprint over the past 12 years.

“Those are tiny, tiny numbers,” Fehring said. “If you extrapolate that over the entire built environment in Australia — which is about 361 million square meters of floor space — we’re at 0.1 percent of that stock achieving a low carbon standard. If you extrapolate to 2050, you'll have about 415 billion square meters of built environment in the world, of which 0.1 percent will be zero carbon on current standards of adoption.”

But the task, he said, is achievable with the combination of both the private sector and government working collaboratively and in partnership “to achieve a common outcome.”

“It will require compromise, incentive, and clear and committed communication to ensure the quantum of what we do over the next 12 years makes a far bigger difference than the last 12 has managed to achieve,” Fehrin said.

Insights into Australia’s progress

Australia’s approach to the SDGs has been to divide up responsibility of the 17 SDGs — with a lead agency allocated to each. Cities and human settlement is lead by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, or PM&C, for example. And poverty is led by the Department of Social Services.

“That’s helping to break it down a bit,” said Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the minister for international development and the Pacific.

Footage courtesy of DFAT.

The work is guided by PM&C and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with the initial goal being to understand government policies and bodies of work that align well with the SDG framework and gaps that exist.

A key focus of work is on data and transparency, rather than creating a national action plan.

“When you get the data right — the stock take right — when you put that out there and have scrutiny by many people in this room, and countries overseas, that will help engender action across the cross-cutting SDGs,” Jason McDonald, chief adviser for the Domestic Policy Group with PM&C, explained to the audience. “And that is clearly a way that has got low cost, that is a way of getting coordination within government, reducing pressure on governments, and hearing from people as well.”

The data being collated, McDonald said, was “first class” and “globally leading,” combining data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other external sources.

“That, itself, will be refined through time when we get better data sources and when we get feedback from the community about whether the indicators we are using really do represent the goals that are being set up,” he said.

And the data will contribute greatly to Australia’s first Voluntary National Review on the SDGs, to the be submitted to the U.N. in July. The review will provide a benchmark of national progress against the SDGs, with the production of the review being led by DFAT.

Fierravanti-Wells explained that in undertaking the review, DFAT had consulted widely with businesses, representative bodies, academics, and other departments to coordinate outreach and collect case studies to contribute to the findings — with more than 300 case studies collected so far.

But there was criticism that there had not been consultation as widely as needed to build community awareness.

“How much consultation has gone on, really, with the Australian community about that?” Smith asked.

Beyond the work of the Australian government, a baseline report on Australian performance against the SDGs was being collated by the National Sustainable Development Council, Monash Sustainable Development Institute and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network — an outcome suggested from the first SDG summit. On Tuesday, a preview online report was made available.

“We’ve now identified 72 targets and 133 indicators — relevant indicators for Australia for which data is available,” Professor John Thwaites, the chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, told the audience. “As we’ve undertaken this project what we’ve seen — and I think everyone sees this around the world — is that it’s actually pretty difficult to get the data on many things.”

The report will analyze how Australia is performing against targets and whether the country is on track. And there will be targets set for Australia to achieve. Currently, Thwaites said Australia appeared on track for about 30 percent of targets.

Improving SDG awareness … using stamps

With public visibility a key issue for progressing the SDGs within Australia, there were a number of suggestions made for improving public awareness — including identifying public champions or ambassadors and involvement of sporting identities to bring both communities and politicians together on the issue.

There were also announcements made on actions to build visibility among the public.

“You’ll be pleased to know that later this year we will be issuing an SDG stamp series,” Susan Mizrahi, head of corporate responsibility for Australia Post, announced to the audience.

Her news was met with applause, with summit participants commenting on the importance of a government-owned entity taking the lead on building branding for the SDGs.

“I’m very excited about that and I hope it provides opportunity to generate more awareness within the mainstream Australian community,” Mizrahi said.

The stamps are part of a wider approach by Australia Post to embed the SDGs within their operations — including associating corporate targets for gender equality, energy efficiency, and social procurement directly to the goals and Australia’s international responsibility.

The summit also saw Australian libraries promote their role in the SDGs, highlighting the vast government-funded shopfronts that exist to build community awareness.

Targets to progress

During the day’s workshops, participants were asked to improve communication for various levels of the Australian community — including the youth, big business, government, and mainstream media.

They were asked to help improve datasets to identify disadvantage — including those among Indigenous Australians and people with disability — and help monitor progress in leaving no one behind.

And all were urged to move beyond business as usual, to take leadership and ownership of the SDGs within their organizations and progress real change.

Partnerships and collaboration were highlighted throughout the day as the piece in the puzzle that would plug many gaps in the SDGs, including building the capital needed. Numerous sessions highlighted that, with the resources of both public and private sectors, the money is out there to achieve global transformation. But collaboration is always easier said than done — and to better foster collaboration, a platform is set to be established allowing summit participants to have visibility on each others’ projects, enabling the first steps to collaboration.

At the conclusion of the day, chair Sam Mostyn urged participants to get on with their piece to support the SDGs — and urgently.

“Imagine, in our children’s lifetime the flesh of fish has too much plastic and cannot be eaten, she said. “Speed matters.”

About the author

  • %25257b6eb61a8f df39 4ae1 bb29 9056d33aa739%25257d

    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.