Scott Morrison – Scramble for grants under Morrison’s China Foundation
Ms Browning, Australia’s former consul-general in Hong Kong, said the foundation’s aim was to build Australian understanding of China and help businesses, individuals and others engage with Australia’s biggest trading partner in areas that were in the “national interest”.
“As part of building a national platform, state and territory governments, business, cultural and community groups and institutions, are increasingly informing our efforts with Australia’s biggest trading partner,” Ms Browning said in her first public comments since taking up the chief executive role.
Behind the scenes
The foundation, which replaced the 40-year-old Australia China Council, was announced as part of a package of measures to build ties with China following diplomatic tensions under the Turnbull government. Its funding was increased from $900,000 annually to $44 million over five years.
Relations have deteriorated even further since, with Beijing ignoring requests for meetings from government ministers. China has slapped restrictions or tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Australian exports since April last year.
However, behind the scenes, individuals and organisations dealing with China say they are trying to keep communications open despite the challenges. Some said they feared a public backlash if they spoke openly about what they were doing.
In June, the government appointed Pru Bennett, a former senior Asia executive for the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, to chair the foundation after businessman Warwick Smith stood down.
The foundation oversees a total of $24 million in grants over five years with the capacity to increase this further. Grants worth $4.1 million were awarded in the first round in 2020. The second round of grants worth $6.5 million closed on March 12.
It is believed both rounds were heavily oversubscribed, with about 435 applications received for $16 million in past and future grants, exceeding the foundation’s budget by more than 10 times.
The foundation’s total budget of $44 million includes operations and staffing. It has about 18 staff and two seconded by the Queensland government.
It has been working closely with Australia’s Chinese communities and engages unofficially with Chinese businesses and other stakeholders. There are more than 1 million people of ethnic Chinese descent in Australia from varying backgrounds.
The foundation has facilitated collaborations in science, health, the arts and other areas. Its role has been challenged by the hostility between China and Australia and the divisive public debate around bilateral relations.
Once borders open between the countries, the foundation is also expected to help organise exchanges, visits and help facilitate visas.
Grants awarded last year went to a range of organisations and projects covering business, health technology, aged care, cultural and scientific exchanges, a new museum in Sydney showcasing the contribution of Chinese Australians to the country and a bilingual mental wellbeing app for Chinese students in Australia. Recipients included Astronomy Australia, Flinders University, Australia Council for the Arts, the Lowy Institute, the Australia China Business Council and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Australia has been at the front line of US-China diplomatic hostilities but remains heavily reliant on China for exports, particularly iron ore. Beijing this week criticised the Morrison government’s support for sanctions on Chinese officials over the treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims.