The Sustainable Development Goals projected onto the U.N. headquarters in New York. Photo by: Cia Pak / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — For much of the past year, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been carrying out a rigorous assessment into how businesses, government departments, civil society organizations, and more have been implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. That voluntary national review, the nation’s first, looks at how SDGs are woven into all sectors  — as well as the challenges faced in assessing them.

In the report launched in Sydney on June 15, Australia chose a case-study style of reporting with snapshots into activities across the 17 goals. The aim is to demonstrate both that the SDGs are a core part of government policy and services delivery, and that there is wide external support to help make the goals a success.

Australia’s SDG implementation strategy

The SDG implementation work is led by DFAT through a whole-of-government, interdepartmental committee on the SDGs.

According to the review, Australia’s approach to SDG implementation is to identify key areas of activity appropriate to Australia’s “national circumstances.” At the federal level, policy requirements will be determined by priorities delegated to government agencies or other levels of government.

Progressing the SDGs: What are the barriers and solutions to national implementation?

At Australia's second Sustainable Development Goals Summit, held in Melbourne on March 13, participants highlighted a number of barriers to implementing the SDGs on a national scale, in a country that considers the goals more linked to the Millennium Development Goals than to domestic politics.

It is nearing three years since the SDGs were adopted in September 2015, yet the review finds that Australia is still engaging domestically to identify policies and programs that are contributing to the outcome of the goals.

During the report launch, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop identified four goals of particular importance to Australia: Gender equality; inclusive and sustainable economic growth; ocean conservation; and peace and governance — goals 5, 8, 14, and 16 respectively.

“There is a very strong alignment between the SDGs and Australia,” Bishop said. “What is important, though, is that we all work in partnership, government, business, civil society, private sector, the public sector. This is an effort for us all.”

Three hundred and twelve government and nongovernment agencies were consulted for the review. Key stakeholders engaged to provide feedback for the VNR included the Australian Council for International Development, Global Compact Network Australia, United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, U.N. Association of Australia, People with Disability Australia, National Congress of Australia’s First People and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Nongovernment sectors including universities, businesses, and civil society are expected to contribute to the goals in building public awareness, as well as progressing the implementation of the SDGs “beyond ‘business as usual’ to make a real impact.”

Australia’s strengths, the report suggests, lie in innovation, technical capability, and its willingness to share knowledge with the world. Building upon this, DFAT hopes they can reduce inequality within Australia and globally.

Investigating interlinkages

Due to the cross-cutting nature of the SDGs, it is important to look at how the goals connect and where associations can be made for greater impact. Through the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s work, Australia is applying this approach in their SDG implementation.

“CSIRO’s work has shown that taking such an approach, identifying both positive and negative interactions, could help us achieve global outcomes at a significantly lower cost through thoughtful coordination of otherwise fragmented action,” the report reads. “Likewise, identifying trade-offs ahead of time could enable conflicts among objectives to be managed before they become institutionalised.”

Through this work, Australia is hoping to demonstrate that the SDGs can act as a “tool” for organizations to identify and mitigate risk and opportunities outside of their core business or functions. This will allow the SDGs to move from government-supported action to whole-of-Australia supported action.

Equally, by encouraging collaboration between organizations, Australia hopes to create stronger interlinkages between the goals.

“For example, the South Australian Government’s Health in All Policies initiative takes a ‘joined-up’ policy development approach to achieve better public policy outcomes and simultaneously improve population health and wellbeing,” the report says. “Such an approach is based on the understanding that health is not just the product of health care activities, but is influenced by a wide range of social, economic, political, cultural and environmental determinants of health.”

What about data?

SDGs show slow progress, not on track to reach 2030 targets, UN reports

Conflict and climate change drove at some of the most significant setbacks documented in the 2018 SDGs report, such as a rise in global hunger rates.

Clearly missing from the report is data demonstrating where Australia lies in relation to progress against each goal, with targets that would determine what demonstrates success domestically as well as through its foreign aid program. But the report does lay out Australia’s data strategy for the SDGs.

According to the report, Australia will need “relevant, quality and timely statistics” that provide evidence for national decision-making and policy.

“We have made concerted efforts to identify relevant, pre-existing data sets that match or closely align to the SDG Indicators,” the report says. “In line with the UN Statistical Commission guidance, Australia has approached the issue of data analysis, identification and reporting from the perspective that countries will approach the indicator framework in line with their own national priorities and capabilities.”

In identifying relevant indicators for the SDG, the Australian Bureau of Statistics undertook a data mapping exercise to identify government-held data sources that could be used as an SDG indicator. But this is not a straightforward process.

“Like other countries, Australia has challenges in identifying datasets,” the report says.

Identifying data custodians and developing a single point of truth where there are multiple custodians are important. Australia is still trying to determine data collection and analysis methodology for a number of SDG indicators that have no current accepted methodology for collection.

Domestically, Australia is working to develop an SDG data platform to make relevant government datasets on SDG indicators available and will indicate the status of Australian data collection against all 232 SDG indicators — a portal expected to be updated based on available data and information, and not a static snapshot from a point in time.

Across time, it is expected this platform will help to identify progress, becoming an SDG reporting platform to support future VNRs.

Australia’s data strategy also takes into account support for neighboring countries through the foreign aid program to enhance their ability to collect, interpret, and analyze data that will help them in determining in-country needs and progress.

Case studies to illustrate Australia’s implementation approach

For many of the case studies used in the report, SDG linkage occurs as an afterthought.

To highlight Australia’s work to support goal 15 on forest management, the report uses the Australian Business and Biodiversity Initiative, an cross-sectoral alliance of organizations promoting the mainstreaming of biodiversity into business practices and decision-making.

But the initiative was established in 2014, before the adoption of the SDGs, and therefore the linkage to the goals tenuous.

Yet the format does help to demonstrate how the SDGs are at the core of “business-as-usual” operations in Australia, as well as the diverse role individuals and organizations outside government can play in their implementation.

Highlighting the work of Plan Australia in developing Free to Be, an interactive online map to help girls and women identify safe spaces in large cities, shows that addressing social challenges is important to Australia — and encouraging these ideas and initiatives will lead to greater change that can be seen by 2030.

The response

On the whole, the VNR has been largely applauded by Australia’s NGOs, that see it as a milestone in SDG implementation. But they also see the challenges it poses — both in Australia’s policy and reporting style.

For ACFID Chief Executive Officer Marc Purcell, the report highlights the challenges Australia faces in addressing health, economic, and social issues faced by Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The environmental challenges are also great, with the Great Barrier Reef under threat from climate change and policies enabling maritime pollution. And poverty continues to grow.

Still according to Purcell, the nature of the case study report showed the value of early adopters’ work, but also showed that examples were “few and far between.”

“To have any realistic chance of achieving the goals by 2030, Australia needs to rapidly transform the way it’s working and put sustainability at its heart,” he said. “We should not be imposing the burden of our failure to act on the next generation. The time for talking has passed, now is the time for action on the SDGs.”

Australia’s VNR will officially be presented to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development at the U.N. in New York, on July 17, by Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the minister for international development and the Pacific.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior 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 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.