What is Australia doing for Children and Families? The Voluntary National Review of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals

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In 2015, Australia joined 193 other Leaders and Ministers in endorsing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. While non-binding, Australia was an active participant in their negotiation and the government reports on progress voluntarily. In today’s post, Policy Whisperer Kay Cook (@KayCookPhD) summarises the government’s analysis of their progress to end poverty (SDG 1) and achieve gender equality (SDG 5), followed by a critique produced by the Academics Stand against Poverty network Oceania chapter. Anti-Poverty Week is an apt time to reflect on how the government frames the intersection of gender and poverty, and what needs to change in order to see real progress.


Australia’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, Australia signed on to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which provide a blueprint for action to “promote prosperity while protecting the planet”. Seventeen goals guide each country’s action to end poverty, while also building economic growth and addressing societal needs for education, health, social protection and job opportunities. Australia’s action on the SDGs began on 1 January 2016, and will run for 15 years, until the end of 2030.

In 2018, Australia released its Voluntary National Review (VNR) of the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, with a range of government departments leading the response to each goal. Timed to coincide with Anti-Poverty Week (14-20 October 2018), the Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP) network Oceania chapter has conducted a review of the federal government’s response, organised around eight topics relevant to poverty in Australia, including food security, Indigenous policy, child and family policies, foreign aid, gender, housing, social policy and disability. In this blog, the focus is on how Australia is faring with respect to the poverty of children and families, as outlined in ASAP’s analysis.

The prospects of children and families in Australia most closely aligned with SDG 1 (No Poverty) and 5 (Gender Equality), each of which are afforded a chapter in the government’s voluntary national review. However, as the ASAP analysis reveals, within Australia’s review of progress on the SDGs, families and children do not feature prominently.

The Sustainable Development Goals are aspirational, yes - but also meant to drive real and lasting change. Is Australia making progress for women and children? Artwork (left)  by Jordana Angus  (right) United Nations.

The Sustainable Development Goals are aspirational, yes - but also meant to drive real and lasting change. Is Australia making progress for women and children? Artwork (left) by Jordana Angus (right) United Nations.

Over-simplifying women’s roles in the VNR

Families are sites where the intergenerational transfer of resources occurs, where the distribution of labour between parents sets one up for financial insecurity should the couple unit break down, and where solutions to gendered and intergenerational poverty could be found – but that’s not how the government talks about the family unit in the Voluntary Review. Rather than discussing the family as the primarily social unit that organises Australian life, the government’s response spends more time discussing the economic potential of women and girls. Here, women and girls do not feature as socially constrained or enabled by their relationships and dependencies. Rather, women and girls are presented as autonomous individuals and – as a group – as a demographic category of individuals who, collectively, contribute to the Australian economy.

As for what this contribution entails, the report notes that women and girls contribute to “the ongoing development of Australia’s innovative industries, economic growth and cohesive communities into the future” (p. 43). Elsewhere, it is repeatedly noted that Australia aims to promote “full participation” (p. 22), “build people’s capacity to participate economically … through employment” (p. 23), help individuals and families experiencing financial crisis “to improve their financial capability” (p. 24) and boost “women’s workforce participation” (p. 43). Overall, women’s contribution is constructed largely as economic.

While the federal government foregrounds the strength that is achieved by working on the interconnections between the SDGs – such as those that, purportedly, exist between poverty and gender – no such connections are made when discussing Australia’s efforts to meet these goals. In both cases, work is put forward as the solution, which reduces the problem to how women can engage more fully. This erases the ‘family’ from the picture, and in doing so makes women’s deeply gendered social obligation to care invisible. It is this invisibility, both in social discourse and in social policy that limits women’s economic participation and thus their equality and financial security. There is a disconnection between work as the route out of poverty identified in Australia’s response to the SDGs (p. 23) and support for the currently invisible and unpaid care-work that women provide in families.

A more nuanced understanding of women’s roles is needed for better outcomes

In identifying what policies would contribute to achieving Australia’s SDGs with respect to poverty reduction for children and families and gender equality, the ASAP analysis returns to the interconnections between SDGs, noting that it is here where policies need to focus. Investing in social housing is highlighted in the ‘housing’ chapter as a policy that could make an impact across SDGs.

Policy action that is suggested in the Child and Family Policy chapter serves to take note of these interconnections, and reverse or temper existing policy to better reconciled the demands of work and care. For example, the expansion of the ParentsNext program, focussed on single mothers with very young children, fails to acknowledge the additional demands of combining work and care on a low income, without the support of a partner, or in combination with other barriers. The ‘work first’ approach central to this program, without a holistic lens applied, may serve to exacerbate rather than ameliorate gender inequity and poverty amongst single mothers in receipt of benefits, especially when jobs are precarious and poorly paid. Similar concerns are raised with respect to the ongoing issues of child support non-compliance and the consistently low rate of Newstart payments, which are now applied to single parents whose children are of school age. Both issues serve to reduce the incomes of some of Australia’s most marginalised families, exacerbating poverty and gender inequality as they proceed.

In summary, the ASAP analysis prompts Australia to consider far more holistic and care-centred policies if significant inroads are to be made in achieving gender equality and reducing poverty in the remaining 12 years of the SDGs.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.