Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

‘Leave no one behind’: The unfulfilled potential of SDGs in Australia

Sep 3, 2018 | News

Written by Hannah Gissane

In July this year, the Federal Government presented Australia’s first national review on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the High Level Political Forum at the UN in New York. In preparing their report, the government created a new online data platform, providing transparency about the sustainable development agenda in Australia. 47% of the SDG indicators are reported against on the platform. For the remaining 53%, the platform identifies a series of ongoing data gaps where work is underway to meet our reporting commitments or the indicator is deemed not applicable.

The SDGs were developed to replace the Millennium Development Goals as a truly global development framework. They were negotiated by all member states of the UN to apply to each and every member state.

The SDGs are not just limited to official development assistance – they also affect domestic policy. In Australia, the implementation of the SDGs is coordinated by a multiagency committee co-chaired by the departments of Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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United Nations Headquarters in New York City

The guiding principle of the SDGs is to ‘leave no one behind.’ Gender equality is both a stand-alone goal (Goal 5) and an essential pre-condition for the achievement of all 17 goals. For 10 of these, gender is also embedded in the targets and indicators, which measure the implementation of the goals. Where gendered data is specifically called for, the Australian Government’s data only recognises the gender binary.

We have selected three SDGs which cover significant gender equality issues in Australia to unpack what this new data platform does and doesn’t say about Australia’s efforts to implement the promise of the SDGs: goal 1 on poverty; goal 8 on work; and goal 10 on inequality.


Goal 1 – end poverty in all its forms everywhere

Target 1.2 for this goal is to halve the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty according to national definitions. One of the indicators for this target is the proportion of population living below the national poverty line, by sex and age.

The Government has drawn on data from the longitudinal HILDA survey to report against this indicator. The focus of this data is on the duration for which people in Australia live below the poverty line.  This information on duration reveals the gendered features that see women live in poverty for longer.

We know from the 2016 ACOSS Poverty Report that women are marginally over-represented as a proportion of the population experiencing poverty at any one time.  Data on duration should be retained, but the data on the overall proportion of people living in poverty in Australia, disaggregated by gender and age is still required.

The government reports that they have achieved 100% of the indicators for this target on account of Australia’s ‘comprehensive welfare system’.  This highlights the relatively low threshold of this target

Target 1.3 calls for member states to implement social protection systems and measures for all, including flaws. The government reports that they have achieved 100% of the indicators for this target on account of Australia’s ‘comprehensive welfare system’.  This highlights the relatively low threshold of this target. We know that over a third of people receiving social security payments are in poverty, women derive a larger proportion of their income from income support, and the brutal tightening of eligibility criteria for income support is leaving many women behind. Reporting against this indicator should go beyond referencing the existence of Australia’s welfare system, and provide information regarding its effectiveness.


Goal 8 – decent work and economic growth

Goal eight is about promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Data has been reported for unemployment rate by sex, age and persons with disabilities.

By stopping short at unemployment, the Government has missed an opportunity to report against other key employment issues that pose a threat to full, productive and decent work for all.  This is a critical issue for women’s economic wellbeing. We know that more women than men are involuntarily underemployed in Australia. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency , “women constitute 68.6% of all part-time employees, 36.8% of all full-time employees and 52.6% of all casual employees.”  While the indicator is limited to unemployment, the Government can provide a fuller picture with data on underemployment and insecure work satisfying the vision of full, productive and decent work for all in Target 8.5.

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Goal 10 – reduce inequality within and among countries

 The government has not disaggregated the data for indicator 10.1.1 according to sex, despite the pre capita reporting. This is particularly frustrating given that the indicator framework mandates, where relevant, “data should be disaggregated by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location, or other characteristics.” Indicator 10.1.1 covers the rate of income growth between the bottom 40 per cent of earners and the population as a whole.

There are inherent shortcomings with this indicator

There are inherent shortcomings with this indicator. By looking solely at income and by focussing on growth for those on low incomes relative to the entire population, it’s a missed opportunity to build an understanding of the complexity of inequality. Such measures could include the gini coefficient, measures focussed on the share of income at the very top and bottom of household and/or individuals, and data on the impact of the tax system on income and wealth redistribution. By incorporating these measures of inequality into the reporting, the Government can present a more accurate view of inequality in Australia. Gender disaggregation would also reflect the relationship between gender, income and wealth inequalities.

The government has not reported against indicator 10.3.1 because there is no globally agreed methodology as yet. This indicator is the proportion of population reporting having personally felt discriminated against or harassed in the previous 12 months on the basis of a ground of discrimination prohibited under international human rights law. Australia does not have a Federal bill of rights and there are gaps in the effectiveness of sex discrimination legislation and the harmonisation of anti-discrimination protections. This was recently highlighted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women who reiterated their concern for Australia’s inability to protect the rights of women and girls in the law.

While the international community has not yet agreed on a methodology for this indicator, it will continue to be difficult for Australia to report against a non-existent human rights framework. In the meantime, the Government should report on complaint statistics to the Australian Human Rights Commission and State equivalents where there is some coverage. This would provide much-needed information on women’s experiences of discrimination and harassment.

Overall, the level of transparency provided by the reported data is commendable

Overall, the level of transparency provided by the reported data is commendable. However, there are still significant gaps in the gender data. While we are only a few years into the implementation of the SDGs and this was the first of the government reviews, the data shows that the potential of the SDGs to support equality in Australia is still unfulfilled. 

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