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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
29/10/2018
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

DODSON, Professor Jago, Global Advisor, United Nations Global Compact—Cities Programme

JORDAN, Ms Nikki, Team Leader, Sustainability Integration, City of Melbourne

CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Prof. Dodson : I'm a professor of urban policy and director of the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, but I'm here representing Mr Michael Nolan, who is the chair of the UN Global Compact Cities Program.

CHAIR: Would you each like to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions?

Ms Jordan : Sure. I'm happy to start. First of all, thank you for the opportunity to speak today and for giving us the opportunity to provide a submission to the Senate inquiry. Last year I was tasked with the responsibility of doing a desktop assessment to understand how we were delivering against the SDGs. We found that we were delivering against all of the SDGs but we did also identify that there was opportunity to improve how we were doing that and to improve the interlinkages between the SDGs and the work that we did. We also did a desktop assessment review of other local government councils and found that, generally across the board, there was low engagement across the sector.

As a local government organisation, we recognise that we have a really strong role to play in progressing the SDGs, particularly given SDG 11. One of the key reasons we submitted a submission to this Senate inquiry was to highlight the fact that we really want to collaborate with the Australian government on the SDGs and to better improve how we work in a coordinated effort between the Australian government, the state government and local government.

Prof. Dodson : I'm here representing the UN Global Compact Cities Program, which is a civil society and private sector initiative of the United Nations, established under the leadership of Kofi Annan. The purpose of the UN Global Compact Cities Program is to engage the UN with civil society and private sector organisations in relation to sustainable urban development. The Cities Program has been operating since 2003 but, since the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals, it has now focused all of its activity on supporting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals through, principally, its partnerships program, known as City Partnerships, which is a model of engagement where it works with cities—principally municipalities—but also local civil society and local private sector academia to identify projects through which all the partners can come together to give support, which will enable the implementation of the SDGs.

From the Cities Program perspective, we welcome this inquiry and thank the committee for the opportunity to come and present today, and to submit a submission. There's a great deal of activity going on around the SDGs and through the network that the UN Global Compact Cities Program represents—a network of over 100 cities around the world who have a great thirst for knowledge but also action around implementing the SDGs, principally SDG 11, within their local areas.

We see a huge opportunity for Australian leadership around the SDGs, both as a country that is already achieving rather well against many of the SDGs—although there are a few that could be improved on—and in the leadership that Australia can show, particularly within the wider Asia-Pacific region, supporting the implementation of the SDGs. At the local scale, the UN Global Compact Cities Program is based at RMIT. The university itself has a great deal of capability and capacity to support and enable SDG activities and implementation through such groups as: the EU Centre; the Centre for Urban Research, which I lead; the City Partnerships process through the Cities Program; and wider internal initiatives that are happening at the university.

I'll round out my opening comments with a couple more points. In terms of process, we see partnerships as being absolutely crucial to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Very few of the goals can be achieved through the actions of one agency or one government or one sector alone; they require multi-party action to be successful. Lastly, as a research organisation, RMIT University is keen to see an emphasis on research within the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly around monitoring and evaluation, which is essential to building a knowledge base and evidence base that can inform more effective practice to support better implementation.

CHAIR: Thank you. Australia doesn't have an index like the US Cities SDG Index?

Ms Jordan : No, we don't.

CHAIR: What would it look like if the federal government was involved? Should we have an index of Australian cities?

Ms Jordan : I think that the US version is a really good example of what could be done here. It would be great to see some kind of benchmark between cities. Obviously the US is a lot bigger and there are a lot more cities that would be in that index. I think what's missing is some direction from the federal government around how the SDGs translate to the city level. If we could have that, whether it's the federal government playing a role with a non-government organisation, such as how it was formed in the US, to come up with what that might look like for cities—so working with the cities to look at what that might look like, and which indicators actually directly help the national government agenda—

CHAIR: If you stuck Adelaide on top and compared everybody against Adelaide, then you'd get some competition between the states. So it would raise the awareness of the goals right across the board?

Ms Jordan : That's right. We talked about doing a localisation process at the City of Melbourne but, if we did that in isolation, we didn't think it would mean much. But if you could benchmark yourself against Adelaide and get a bit of competition going, that could also help inform where you spend your dollars in terms of developing programs.

CHAIR: Is that one way of getting the local government, the state government and the federal government to interact together?

Ms Jordan : I think so.

Prof. Dodson : I think it's interesting that the SDGs are a global agreement between member states through the UN process but that their implementation—particularly SDG 11, which is of the greatest interest to the Global Compact Cities Program—happens at the city or municipal level. That means there is a need for a framework at the national scale because it's the national government—the federal government, in Australia's case—that has signed up to the SDGs and is responsible for reporting on progress against them. Therefore, there needs to be some kind of framework by which the federal government accounts for the performance of Australia as a country. Now, whether that's through an index, I think that would be a valuable tool that could assist. But I think a wider perspective is likely to be needed in terms of what does the federal government think about how the SDGs ought to be implemented and what emphases should be given and then setting up an effective monitoring and evaluation regime that can track the performance of municipalities, metropolitan areas or state governments in responding to the SDGs.

Senator LINES: Ms Jordan, when you conducted your desktop research against other councils, was that just on the councils in Victoria?

Ms Jordan : I looked more broadly. I searched the major cities and then looked at a few regional ones. It was a desktop Google search and nothing really came up. I have spoken to a number of my sustainability peers, particularly in Victoria, and there just hasn't been much work done. There is interest but no-one really knows what to do.

Senator LINES: Professor Dodson, you talked about measuring our progress against the SDGs. It strikes me too that the SDGs are not something which I hear the state government—I'm from Western Australia—or, indeed, our local councils talking about. If you have this broad framework, you would have layers of accountability and reporting backup. Is there a model around that looks at that? Is there a developed model for Australia in terms of SDGs?

Prof. Dodson : I am not aware of a developed model. Even though the time frame for the SDG of 2030 is fairly soon, we are still in the early phases of implementing the SDGs. They have really only been around for a couple of years. I think the global community is catching up a bit in terms of understanding what the appropriate response to them is. I think this inquiry probably reflects that, in that Australia is still coming to a view on how best to apply them.

Senator LINES: Senator Moore reminded us earlier that we are 2½ years in but the end goal is looming and we need some action.

Senator SINGH: Ms Jordan, your submission talks about the US Cities SDG Index. How would something like that work in Australia? Obviously, there are a lot more cities in the US, so—

Ms Jordan : There would be indicators that would be common to all cities, which would feed into the national indicators and then, complementary to that, there would be local indicators that would be relevant to each council, whether it is a major capital city or a regional area. So, you would probably need the cities index and then maybe a regional version to sit beside it. I just think there needs to be some kind of framework for councils to work collaboratively towards. There is just nothing there at the moment it. We don't really know how we can help the government live up to its commitments.

Senator MOORE: Ms Jordan, have you spoken with the local government associations? We are taking evidence from the City of Sydney on Friday. They raise very similar issues to those which you are raising. I have had a genuine lack of success in talking to local government associations in Queensland about engagement in this space. What I've heard and what has happened at the seminars that have been convened about the SDGs over the last couple of years in Melbourne is that the City of Melbourne has been a regular contributor and was used in the response in New York. They talked about what the City of Melbourne was doing—and that is fantastic. I am just wondering whether the very strong voice that you have had, that Adelaide has had and that Sydney has had—and I think Wollongong and Newcastle are already doing things as well—has got through to local government associations.

Ms Jordan : To be honest, I haven't had much to do with the LGAs. My involvement has been more with peers across council. I have spoken to a number of different councils about the SDGs. I haven't actually spoken to the City of Sydney.

Senator MOORE: It might be useful, as they've given us a submission and we are talking to them on Friday. It could be a network. They're our two biggest cities. If both of you have identified an interest—which is superb—it might be a chance to talk about the things they raise and very similar issues about lack of standard reporting mechanisms and lack of engagement—those kinds of things. It's about genuinely integrating the SDGs into their own plans. My understanding is that that's what Melbourne has done: you've integrated the SDGs.

Ms Jordan : We've integrated them into our new strategy development guidelines. So when anyone in the organisation is developing a new strategy they will have to refer to the SDGs, together with the megatrends that have been articulated for the City of Melbourne. That piece of work has been done. We are also looking at integrating into the Municipal Strategic Statement, which sets vision for the city. The other action area we've been working on is around sharing information and learning. The next stage we're moving into is working out what's next. We are looking at engaging with other councils towards the end of the year and hosting a workshop next year to work out what we could do collaboratively. I've been putting my feelers out. I've been focusing on Victorian councils at the moment.

Senator MOORE: Would it include a training program for your staff, so that people understood what the SDGs are and how it would be relevant, rather than something tacked on? I'm very much concerned about the increased workload for people and the natural rejection of having to go through another thing that they have to do. I wonder how that is going.

Ms Jordan : We don't have dedicated resources for the SDGs, but as part of embedding into the strategy development guidelines our team has offered to provide support to any team developing a new strategy. We had two new strategies that were under development, and I tested what that might look like. We worked with the waste and resource recovery team.

Senator MOORE: Waste is specifically mentioned in one of the SDGs. It is a massive issue.

Ms Jordan : Yes. That was a really good opportunity to test how SDG thinking and that sort of systems thinking could be applied to strategy development. At the same time, our transport and climate mitigation strategy were being worked on. I provided my own services to engage with people who were working on those strategies around what they meant and how they could apply to thinking to their strategies.

Senator MOORE: Have you had a chance to work with Monash in terms of the SDG centre there? It must be a marvellous resource, being in Melbourne, to have them near.

Ms Jordan : Yes. I liaise with them. I've had various conversations with them over time. I've also engaged with RMIT.

Senator MOORE: I will talk about RMIT soon. We had evidence from Monash this morning. They're the ones who have been coordinating those meetings.

Ms Jordan : Yes. I went to a Monash symposium a couple of weeks ago and spoke about it. That was the researchers wanting to understand, similar to the work of RMIT, how they could engage with the business sector or government sector to progress the SDGs. It's those sorts of things that I've been trying to get involved in.

Senator MOORE: That's your network. That's your background, so you can actually get that expertise. That can then be shared through the whole council. Professor Dodson, thank you for submission. It's very detailed with pictures of so many people. The investment that RMIT is doing, how is that funded?

Prof. Dodson : I must admit that I'm not here specifically to talk about RMIT, but I will do my best. The university's response to the SDGs—

Senator MOORE: The submission that we've got about the global process has details about the investment that RMIT has done across a number of areas.

Prof. Dodson : There are probably two main areas through which the university is responding to the SDGs. One is through having committed to do Sustainable Development Goals as an institution and to be implementing through its sustainability committee as much action as it can in its own operations, to reflect the purpose of the SDGs in terms of reducing carbon emissions, reducing waste streams and so on. The second part of the response is more through programs that the university runs. Obviously the commitment to hosting the UN Global Compact cities program, which is quite a substantial financial contribution on an annual basis, would be a major component of that, because that enables the university to participate—

Senator MOORE: And that comes from UN funding?

Prof. Dodson : The small secretariat for the cities program is supported by RMIT.

Senator MOORE: So that is your contribution?

Prof. Dodson : That's RMIT's contribution.

Senator MOORE: Which would be significant, I imagine.

Prof. Dodson : I don't have the exact figure, but it's not small for university, let's put it that way. There is co-funding from the UN Global Compact and other partners who support it.

Senator MOORE: So it's shared funding.

Prof. Dodson : The activities of the cities program are aligned with what RMIT is seeking to achieve in relation to the SDGs. The purpose of the program is to build and expand those activities in line with the expectations of the UN Global Compact. Then there are probably some smaller initiatives going on in the university to encourage and enable the academic community to become more active and involved, principally from a research point of view, but also from a teaching point of view, about the Sustainable Development Goals. Partly this is because there are huge knowledge needs around the SDGs, particularly around how to implement them, because they're quite new and there's not a great deal of existing knowledge about how to respond to them. There's a huge thirst out there among the global policy community to better understand the approaches and practices that can help implement the SDGs. So there's a research task there. Then the university is starting to think through how it can align its teaching programs to enable the training of the new generation of sustainability professionals across a raft of disciplines who are schooled in the SDGs and can assist with that implementation task, not just in Australia but looking towards opportunities to contribute internationally through training programs that bring professionals to Australia and offer them short courses or longer term courses to upskill.

Senator MOORE: Is this particular group involved with the conference in Newcastle on Thursday, which is looking at affordable living in sustainable cities?

Prof. Dodson : That's right. The cities program is one of the major sponsors of that conference.

Senator MOORE: I get so confused by all the titles, which all sound amazingly alike. So it's the cities program out of RMIT?

Prof. Dodson : The cities program is hosted by RMIT University, but it is formally part of the UN Global Compact organisation.

Senator MOORE: They're one of the sponsors, where the whole focus of those two days is going to be sustainable cities.

Prof. Dodson : That's right.

Senator MOORE: Do you know whether the City of Melbourne is going to have participants at that conference, Ms Jordan?

Ms Jordan : I'm not sure.

Senator MOORE: It's the linkage, isn't it—how you get people who are interested and want to learn to get to the place. Newcastle was so happy to get it, because their city council has actually committed to so many programs. They're running it out of Newcastle for two days. That would be a really good learning tool, but you need to know about it to get there.

Prof. Dodson : For the Newcastle conference I'm part of the loose organising group that RMIT is part of, with a number of organisations.

Senator MOORE: Several are listed there.

Prof. Dodson : I pay tribute to Compass Housing, which is an NGO, which has taken a huge leadership role both in terms of that conference and in the SDG and new urban agenda in Australia more widely. We have worked with them for a number of years, starting from the UN Habitat III conference back in 2016, which occurred just after the SDGs were signed. RMIT and Compass Housing and the other partners that are part of that loose group—we don't quite have a formal status yet—see the efficacy around the SDGs as being really critical to the wider achievement of the goals. Hopefully we can support and enable local governments, state and federal governments to develop the capacity to be able to respond more effectively.

Senator MOORE: In terms of the federal government interaction, the federal government are coordinating and wrote our response to the UN earlier this year. Have they been engaged with you in the work that you're doing at RMIT on this issue? Just looking at the investment that RMIT have made and the range of experts that are engaged across so many issues—

Prof. Dodson : That's only a fraction of it as well, around the climate change and disaster response group.

Senator MOORE: Have they been involved at all?

Prof. Dodson : The federal government? I'm not aware of details around contact with the federal government. I know that Michael Nolan, who is the chair of the UN Global Compact Cities Program, has had some contact with the federal government.

Senator MOORE: Where's he based?

Prof. Dodson : He's based at RMIT.

Senator MOORE: So he's chair of the whole thing. The coordinating networks, those annual get-togethers that have been arranged and sponsored by so many people—DFAT being one—seem to be the methodology for everyone to get together. That's where people get a chance to meet each other and display their knowledge. The City of Melbourne presented at the one earlier this year in Melbourne. I think RMIT had a table there.

Prof. Dodson : This conference in Newcastle follows on from one that was held last year in Melbourne, which was around the urban and gender SDGs. This conference in Newcastle was the second year of that being held, with slightly different themes.

Senator MOORE: There have been a couple overseas with similar titles, haven't there? Someone I know is very interested in this particular part, and I think they said Kuala Lumpur.

Prof. Dodson : There's the World Urban Forum conference, which is held every two years. The most recent one was held in Kuala Lumpur this year. The next one will be 2020 in Abu Dhabi.

Senator MOORE: Many of the experts go to them. Will DFAT be represented on Thursday?

Prof. Dodson : I'm unable to attend that conference, so I don't know whether DFAT will be there. I do know that, in the past, invitations have been made to DFAT to be part of these events. I wouldn't want to say whether DFAT has been able to take them up or not.

Senator MOORE: I'll find out. Again it's one of those things, coordinating everyone who's in this space so that people are sharing openly.

Prof. Dodson : Allow me to put it this way: of the very large Australian delegation that went to the Habitat III conference in Quito in 2016, I think you could say there was a fair degree of disappointment amongst the many university, NGO and to some extent local government groups that were there that the federal government was not present at that conference and has not been heavily involved in this area of policy. Many other countries sent ministers of state. Heads of state even turned up to that conference. Australia sent the UN ambassador. I don't mean to cast shade on the UN ambassador, but it would have been nice to have seen a minister there.

Senator MOORE: That was the New York based ambassador.

Prof. Dodson : Yes, that's right—who did a terrific job, I should say.

Senator MOORE: We've had a history recently at some of these conferences of sending someone from the local post. At least at Quito they sent someone from New York, which is a step up.

Prof. Dodson : I'm probably stepping a bit beyond the bounds of my role to say this, but I think it has been noted by many that Australia has not been as present as might have ideally been the case.

Senator MOORE: I understand the disappointment was effectively communicated back to the government at that time—that there was no high-level parliamentary or governmental engagement in that conference.

Prof. Dodson : Which I think is to some extent a missed opportunity, because Australia has a huge amount to offer in relation to particularly SDG 11, given that we're renowned for our cities being amongst the most liveable in the world. I know they have their issues such as of high levels of energy consumption and other aspects that aren't so sustainable, but in governance and providing high quality of life I think Australia could be articulating its successes to the world and contributing in a way that it hasn't chosen to previously.

Senator MOORE: We spoke this morning with Monash and they had their kit about engagement of universities. RMIT is one of the universities that were involved in that. Is that the area about which you're talking, or are you saying that there's a much wider engagement now with RMIT looking across the board at things you were doing, so it's not just this project?

Prof. Dodson : As I mentioned, RMIT is involved through being a signatory to these SDGs and through its sustainability committee, which tries to ensure the university's operations are aligned with the SDGs. Intellectual interest in the SDGs tends to be organised at a lower level within the university amongst the academics, schools and centres that are most interested. I'm the director of the Centre for Urban Research, so SDG 11 is our SDG, and we're doing a lot of work on that at the moment. Others within the wider sphere of environmental research are also engaging with the SDGs.

Senator MOORE: Water, energy—

Prof. Dodson : That's right. I would note that, across the academic sector, knowledge and understanding of the SDGs are still developing. University researchers and teaching programs are not adopting them en masse just yet, but it's starting to happen. We see great advantage for us to be closely involved and engaged with them.

Senator MOORE: Has RMIT been involved in Transforming Australia's independent assessment of SDGs?

Prof. Dodson : Not that I'm aware of.

Senator MOORE: It is interesting. We're doing well in some of the 11. There are a couple of areas where we are rated as poor, with the trend not being positive in things like homelessness, housing affordability and household financial arrangement. They are things that would all be part of the kind of work you're doing.

Prof. Dodson : Very much so. We host a centre of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute at RMIT. We have a very large transport network doing work on transport questions including transport energy. We see the SDGs, particularly SDG 11, as very closely aligned with the kinds of research strengths we have in relation to urban futures at RMIT.

Senator MOORE: Then with City of Melbourne, SDG 12 with all the waste management and those areas, again there mixed results, but municipal waste, recycling rate and national percentage are trending well. That's something that councils would be all over.

CHAIR: On behalf of the committee I thank you both and all witnesses who have appeared today. The committee asks that any answers to questions taken on notice be returned by Monday 12 November 2018.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 02