How the Sustainable Development Goals can help change the way we evaluate Federal Budgets and election platforms

Election season is on us again, and Twitter feeds and daily news updates are full of potential elected leaders making policy promises and giving warnings about how the opposing parties won’t be able to bring us the Australia we need.

But how do we know what the Australia we need is? Depending on political leaning and personal values, this is going to vary from voter to voter. But when deciding on which policies to support, it can be useful to try and have a framework by which to evaluate platforms and the societies they are wishing to create. Megan Weier suggests that, if we want an Australia in which there is a ‘fair go for all’ (the classic Australian dream), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a useful benchmark to look to.

The 2030 SDGs. Image credit:

The 2030 SDGs. Image credit:

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals that were agreed by 193 Member States of the United Nations Sustainable Summit in 2015. Australia was one of the countries that are aiming to achieve the 169 targets by the year 2030. Various Australian organisations have signed on to the SDGs, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading (DFAT) have worked to try and engage the private sector to help achieve the Goals. Despite the fact that Australia is signed on to these Goals, most Australians don’t know they exist - or what this means for policy if we genuinely want to try and achieve the Goals by 2030.

Many of the Goals – such as ‘Zero Hunger’ (Goal 2) and ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ (Goal 6) – can be seen as ‘international problems’ in which Australia can and should be contributing to other countries and their development (particularly focusing on ‘third-world’ countries that often require foreign aid). But as members of the sector recently told a federal inquiry into the Australian implementation of SDGs, these are also issues that require attention and policy change within Australia. This is perhaps a complication of the SDG portfolio being held by DFAT – there is an implicit assumption that the focus is international. But there is always room for improvement within Australia.

DFAT released the first Voluntary National Review of their progress towards the SDGs in late 2018. While the report uses a case-study approach to demonstrate the efforts being made to achieve the goals, there is a noted lack of available and appropriate data by which to mark our progress. Another report suggested that Australia’s performance has been mixed, and is facing major issues tackling inequality and climate change. A major problem is that while Australia has signed on to the SDGs, there is not currently an implementation plan in place for how we are going to get there.

The SDGs currently are a list of ‘nice to have’ ambitions for the world in 2030, but it is disingenuous to think that they are politically neutral targets. To achieve these targets, decisive policies that directly target inequality, as well as climate and environmental damage are needed. They are Goals that can’t just be ‘supported’ but need to be acted upon.

What can the voting public do with this? I suggest the SDGs can also be an incredibly useful too by which to evaluate the policy platforms that parties are putting forward. Considering the upcoming election, how do each of the political parties locate themselves on at least some of the 17 Goals?

1.       No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2.       Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

3.       Good Health and Wellbeing: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages.

4.       Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

5.       Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

6.       Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

7.       Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

8.       Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

9.       Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.

10.   Reduced Inequalities: Reduce inequality within and among countries (emphasis added).

11.   Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

12.   Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

13.   Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

14.   Life Below Water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

15.   Life on Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

16.   Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

17.   Partnerships for the Goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

Regardless of political leaning and priorities, it is likely that the above Goals address at least one social concern for most voters. It can then become an exercise of enquiring about how each party proposes to address the Goals (there are 169 individual targets that act as measures of achievement). This could also be done for Budget announcements and responses. For example:

  • How would reducing income taxes impact Goal 1 – No Poverty? Perhaps fewer people will live below the national poverty line (Goal 1.2.1), but would this also impact the proportion of total government spending on essential services? (Goal 1.a.2)

  • Investing in cheaper, cleaner energy may address Goal 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy. Does this plan also intend to address Goal 13 – Climate Action, or is it primarily about reducing household energy costs?

The SDGs present a challenge both globally and nationally for how we are going to create a more just and equitable society. Political parties often talk about wanting Australians to have a ‘fair go,’ but won’t talk about what needs to be given up or changed in order for this to be achieved. This election, the SDGs could be a useful way of evaluating whether the various parties have policies in place that will help each Australian get their ‘go’. 

Dr Megan Weier is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW. Part of her research is currently focusing developing a measure of Australian social progress, and whether this can be used to help measure progress and implementation of the SDGs.