What do the SDGs really have to offer?

An end of year reflection from Queensland

Claire Brolan

Development, Government and governance, Social policy, Food & water | Australia

7 December 2018

Australia’s commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals should be harnessed to bring about not only better water policy for all Australians, but more participatory governance for the whole country, Claire Brolan writes.

This year has been remarkable from a health and development policy perspective in Queensland.

First, the government introduced a Human Rights Bill to parliament, making Queensland Australia’s third jurisdiction to adopt rights legislation. Not only will the proposed law promote Queenslanders’ right to education, but it will protect their right to access health services, especially in emergency medical settings.

More on this: Podcast: Water justice and Indigenous rights

The second significant development is the Queensland Government’s release of a Human Health and Wellbeing Climate Change Adaptation Plan – the first standalone climate change and health adaptation plan in Australia.

While having health policy and rights law on paper is a good step, both are only as good as their implementation in practice for impactful change. I was reminded of this at the Safe Water Summit held at the University of Queensland on 29-30 November, which brought together stakeholders to discuss the quality of drinking water in remote and semi-remote areas and potential responses.

Drinking water is an important issue. The multidimensional challenges surrounding safe water in Australia unconscionably and disproportionately impact the health and well-being of our First Nations people and future generations.

At the summit I presented on why Australia’s commitments under the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda should be leveraged to help ensure safe water supplies to Australians living in rural and remote settings.

I had five minutes to explain why grandiose words on paper mattered to the diverse summit participants, including Indigenous and non-Indigenous community representatives. The relevancy of SDG 6 (Clean water), SDG 3 (Good health) and SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities) was clear, but why did the larger SDG agenda really matter to them?

When the Millennium Development Goals concluded in 2015, the world committed to continuing the momentum by introducing a new set of development goals for the next 15 years for all nations and people – including high-income countries like Australia. Thus, in 2015, Australia and 192 countries signed onto the SDGs, its ‘innovative’ 2030 Agenda and its grand call for social, economic and environmental prosperity.

So what could the SDGs offer Australia?

First, it’s important to recognise that the SDGs are not a ‘new’ policy agenda for Australia. Rather, they speak to a longstanding sacred way of knowing and doing business, also known as ‘Caring for Country’. The Federal Government acknowledged this in its first Voluntary National Review on SDG implementation in June 2018. The SDGs may be a ‘new’ development agenda for UN member states in implicitly accepting this way of knowing and acting, but not for the traditional custodians of Australia.

More on this: Australia and climate change: better leadership and less policy paralysis

Second, in Canberra (and elsewhere), the appeal to human and environmental rights isn’t so palatable. This is well-illustrated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent comments about Australian school students striking to protest government inaction on climate change.

Although there is a shift at the state and territory level for legislatively embedded levers for human rights, the federal level is another matter. Australians need as many complementary but compelling ways to galvanise everyone around development initiatives at all levels of government – as well as in business, research, education, civil society, communities and across generations.

The SDGs offer a language that cuts across government departments, levels and silos. They demand a whole-of-government integrated approach to development, including the safe water space. The SDGs articulate a multi-stakeholder, multi-jurisdictional approach to development grounded in social accountability and rights.

The third reason for harnessing the SDGs is participatory governance. SDGs 16 and 17 require countries and their development partners to invest in participatory governance platforms and processes for SDG policy-making, planning, monitoring and review.

Ideally, participatory governance should be mandated in law to bring to life a full-spectrum (not top-down) approach to development – one that assures the leadership, participation and breadth of voices of people left furthest behind, and pays due concern to Australia’s future generations.

Genuine participatory governance is an important way to help countries and communities navigate the inevitable trade-offs in the SDGs. The Australian government has the opportunity to represent to the world an example of empowerment for our Indigenous peoples who have managed and cared for the water of this dry continent for many generations.

By respectfully seeking their leadership and guidance, Australia could be a model of how best to achieve good health and development policy in the 21st century.

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