Australia prosperous but lags on key world goals

05 Sep 2018

A comprehensive report detailing Australia’s progress towards meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, highlighting major challenges in reducing inequality and tackling climate change, will be officially launched tomorrow.

Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report, identifies where Australia is performing well and where it is not on track to meet the 17 priority UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The goals encompass a set of economic, social and environmental targets to be met by 2030.

The report has been prepared by the National Sustainable Development Council in partnership with Monash Sustainable Development Insitute and drawn on independent expertise from across business, universities and the community sector. The report looks at trends between 2000 to 2015 to gauge whether Australia is on track to meet the SDG targets. 

National Sustainable Development Council Chair, Professor John Thwaites said the analysis showed Australia’s progress on achieving the SDGs by 2030 was mixed.

“There is strong progress in the areas of health and education, but poor performance in addressing inequality, tackling climate change and housing affordability,” he said.

“The report also highlights key challenges in achieving Australia’s economic goals with relatively low investment in research and development and innovation, increasing underemployment and high levels of household debt.

“Of the 144 indicators assessed across the 17 goals, about one-third were determined to be on track, more than one-third needed improvement or a breakthrough and one-quarter are off-track or deteriorating.

“Despite some good progress the report found almost every goal has at least one target where an important indicator is off track or will require a breakthrough to be achieved.

“For example, life expectancy in Australia is among the highest in the world, and smoking rates and road traffic deaths have fallen dramatically. However, challenges remain with a high prevalence of lifestyle related risks including obesity and deaths due to road accidents in remote areas five times higher than in cities.

“Similarly, Australia is an increasingly educated society, with a growing proportion of the population gaining tertiary qualifications. While Australian student performance on the key OECD benchmark has been declining across science, maths and reading, Australian students perform very well as collaborative problem solvers. On the downside, investment in early childhood education and care remains low.

“It is clear that Australia has a considerable way to go to achieving most of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and that this will require a major change from business as usual.

“Despite our history of strong economic growth, our children and grandchildren face the prospect of being worse off than we are unless we address inequality, climate change and cost of living pressures.

Louise Davidson, CEO of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, said the report also highlights the need for business leaders to engage in wider community conversations.

"The report highlights ACSI research which shows increasing engagement among ASX200 companies around  wider societal challenges such as gender equality and climate action. While this is a positive sign, it also reflects growing awareness among business of the need to do more to maintain community trust and support,” Ms Davidson said.

Key findings include:

Economy – Prosperous But Not Prepared


Disposable income – Australia’s disposable income per capita has increased by nearly 30 per cent from 2000 to 2015.

Employment – Australia’s employment rate is at near record high levels, with more women entering the workforce, and unemployment has fallen. 


Household debt – Household debt has risen to very high levels at 120 per cent of GDP in 2017.

Stagnant wages growth and underemployment – While average weekly earnings have increased by 21 per cent between 2000 and 2016, this growth has slowed since the GFC and now almost stalled  entirely.  Underemployment (i.e. people who would like to work extra hours) for both men and women is increasing. with one third of the part-time workforce wanting more work. 

Investment in research and development and knowledge based capital – Business investment in research and skills development has declined since the GFC.

Society – Moving forward but unevenly


Health – Australia has one of the highest life expectancies in the world – male life expectancy was 80.4 years and female life expectancy was 84.5 years in 2015.  Smoking rates have declined by 34 per cent and traffic accidents have declined by 47 per cent between 2000 and 2015.

Education – Australia has a skilled workforce with high qualification levels that continue to rise. 43.7 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 64 years have a vocational or tertiary education qualification in 2015 up from 27.5 per cent in 2000.  Australian students perform well above average in collaborative problem solving.

Crime rates – Proportion of the population experiencing violence reduced 29 per cent between 2000 and 2015 and incidence of household break-ins reduced 24 per cent.


Newstart allowance - In 2000, people on the unemployment benefit Newstart were on the poverty line but by 2014 they were 20 per cent below the poverty line.

Cost of living pressures:

·         Energy affordability - In the past decade, the retail price of electricity has more than doubled which means Australians now pay higher electricity prices than most other OECD countries.  The 20 per cent of Australian households with the lowest incomes are spending 4-5 per cent of their household budget just on electricity.

·         Water affordability, as indicated by those who spend more than 3 per cent of their income on water services, has worsened, with the lower 40 per cent now spending more than 3 per cent of their income.

·         Housing affordability - the ratio of house prices compared to household disposable incomes increased by 51 per cent between 2000 and 2016. 

Obesity – In 2015, 27.5 per cent of Australians were obese, an increase from 24.4 per cent in 2000.

Early childhood education and care: Australia invests 0.51 per cent of GDP in early childhood education and care, compared to an OECD average of 0.7 per cent.

Homelessness – The number of people experiencing homelessness has increased by 12 per cent from 2000 to 2017.

Domestic violence – the proportion of women who experience domestic violence each year has fallen slightly, although at more than one in 50 women it remains unacceptably high. 

Prison population – Australia’s prison population is at its highest recorded level with Indigenous people representing over 28 per cent of the prison population and the female prison population increasing by 77 per cent over the last decade.

Gender inequality – The gender pay gap remains at 15-17 per cent while women’s superannuation balance is 42 per cent less than their male counterparts at retirement.  Women still carry the burden of unpaid domestic duties.

Wealth and Income inequality – Key measures of income inequality – such as the Gini coefficient and the Palma ratio of the top 10 per cent to the bottom 40 per cent  – changed little between 2000 and 2015. Income inequality remains high by international standards, but not as high as countries such as the United States. Wealth inequality (in terms of the ratio of the top 10 per cent to the bottom 40 per cent) has increased from 8.5 to 10 over the same period.

Environment – Still Australia’s Achilles Heel


Water efficiency – Australia’s  water consumption per capita was reduced by 45 per cent between 2001 and 2011, one of the largest falls in the world.

Fish stocks –  the proportion of Australia’s fish stocks assessed as sustainable has increased to 86.2 per cent in 2016.

Recycling – Australia’s municipal recycling rates are amongst the highest in the OECD.


Threatened species – According to the Red List Index which measures survival rates for native species, Australian mammals, birds and amphibians were at greater risk of extinction in 2017 than 2000.

Action on climate change – Australia still have the highest per capita emissions of any OECD country.  From 2005 to 2017 Australia’s total emissions declined by just 7 per cent, while actually increasing during 2016 and 2017.  Despite lower emissions from less land clearing, there were large increases in emissions from industry and transport, so Australia’s emissions are practically the same now as they were in 2000.

Protection of the Great Barrier Reef – The Great Barrier Reef hard coral cover has decreased by 38 per cent from 2000 to 2011.

For more information or to access the Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report website go to:

NOTE: The Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report website will be officially launched at a Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) function on Wednesday 5 September 2018.

The report has been prepared by the National Sustainable Development Council in partnership with Monash Sustainable Development Institute and SDSN Australia, New Zealand Pacific.

The report has been supported by Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, HESTA, cbus, IFM and AustralianSuper.

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