The long historical relationship between Australia and Scandinavia has been subject to little detailed analysis. The establishment of the Scandinavian Studies Centre in Adelaide was a small attempt to remedy the defect, taking "historical relationship" is its broadest meaning to encompass all human activity from the 18th century to the near present.
Scandinavians were among the first and last ashore in Australia. Daniel Solander, a Swede who had studied with Linneus was, with the Finn Herman Spöring, among the first Europeans to set foot on Australian soil during Cook's voyage of discovery in April 1770. Solander died on 25 January 1771 on the return voyage to Europe while Cook was sailing through what is now the Indonesian archipelago, but many more Scandinavians followed him, lured initially by the same metal which stirred the vikings - gold. So many stayed and settled that their Danish language newspaper Norden remained for years a rich source of information on Nordic attitudes to life in the Antipodes. A church was built by the Swedes in Melbourne which remains today the biggest cultural and networking centre for Scandinavians in Australia. In subsequent years Jorn Utzon designed the Sydney Opera House, Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White had his first drink in Malmö, and labor Prime Minister Paul Keating chose Danpork to run his hobby piggery. There were signs large and small of the Scandinavian connection, and were followed in a major development when the Australian government decided to give the Swedish shipyard Kockums, then part of the Celsius Group, now part of SAAB, the contract for upgrading Australia's naval submarine fleet.
Diplomats were quick to capitalise on the new trade bridges being built between Australia and Scandinavia. The submarine contract was the biggest ever military commission: $5 billion Australian dollars. Australians love competitions. They had a competition to decide who would design the Sydney Opera House, and a competition to decide who would build Australia's new submarine fleet. Both winners were Scandinavians and both faced vicious criticism in the years that followed, but the fact was that the Scandinavians won the prizes because they were better than the opposition. Better at what? In the submarine case, it’s an open secret that the Navy would have preferred a German submarine fleet, but the Australian government ministers and trade union officials who visited the world’s naval dockyards liked what they saw at Malmö, where social democracy seemed to be the best way of organising ship construction in a strike-free atmosphere and where the profits were shared between capital, labour and government alike. At the time Kockums won the prize, total trade between the two regions ran at about $2 billion a year, the balance of trade being about 2 to 1 in Scandinavians’ favour, and with Sweden having the lion’s share of the profits, with Finland second, Denmark third and then Norway. The Swedish ambassador to Australia, Bo Heinebäck, and the Australian ambassador to Sweden, Rob Merrillees, decided to build on the existing connections, and to develop trade in military equipment, motor vehicles, mobile phones, wine, uranium and - both men being scholars - education.
Heinebäck and Merrillees decided to use their influence to help set up a Scandinavian Studies Centre in Adelaide, home of the new submarine base which was building the most advanced non-nuclear submarine in the world. Adelaide was seen as having ideal conditions since among its three Universities, Flinders already had a long history of teaching Scandinavian history, and many scholars in a wide variety of fields had worked in the Nordic region. Merrillees was followed by two more high flyers to the Stockholm Embassy as the Australian Government recognised the importance of sending only first class diplomats to an area which before Merrillees had not been such an important posting. Judith Pead worked hard to cement Australia-Nordic relations, and Stephen Brady, the current Ambassador to Sweden, (who is also accredited to Finland, Norway, Iceland, Estonia, Lavia, Lithuania, Greenland and the Faroe Islands - but not Denmark, the Australian government having decided to reinstate the Head of Mission in Copenhagen) has had the extraordinarily difficult task of arranging an extradition treaty with Latvia. Pead came to Stockholm from the South East Asian Branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, while Brady, who took up his appointment in January 1999, was a former Senior Advisor in the Office of the Australian Prime Minister.
Another important reason for choosing Adelaide was the fact that Adelaide had also been chosen by the Australian government to be home of the Multi-Function Polis. Bert-Olof Svanholm, head of both ABB and Volvo, was on the MFP Board. In the event, the MFP, which was expected to blossom into a Silicon Valley, failed, but Flinders staff with diplomatic and industry representatives set up the Centre, and contributed university education to wine and uranium as important Australian exports. Although the group of scholars waxed and waned as their interests and fields fluctuated over the next decade, the basic core activities remained clearly focused. The new Flinders University International Office pioneered attempts to do something for the Nordic students who were beginning to move south, from K.T.H, B.I., and the Universities of Copenhagen and Stockholm, Bjorknes Privatskole and many others.
Scandinavian students have usually been attracted by either the romance of study in a region as far away from home as they can travel, or to study in particular area where a successful relationship built on good experiences has been built up. This has seen a steady stream of Swedish students from Göteborg studying adoption, race and social welfare issues. The most recent large group to travel south as a group have been nursing students who are able to use their nursing qualifications to work in either Norway or Australia, because the course and curriculum have been structured to permit registration in both countries. A happy pendulum traffic has developed between Norway and Australia, as Australian nurses at Flinders have been keen as to work in Norway as the Norwegians have been to study here.
What did the Scandinavian Studies Centre focus on first? A lot of products, intellectual and industrial, were not known locally even to be Scandinavian, so step one was a consciousness- raising effort to demonstrate how many household words were Nordic: Garbo, (although the word has somewhat different connotations in Australia) Ericsson, Nokia, Electrolux, Saab, Volvo, Nobel, Kierkegaard, Munch, Ibsen, Sibelius, Quisling. Then there was some fine tuning, distinguishing Ingrid from Ingmar Bergman, explaining that Huntford was interesting but not always right, what the Lapua Movement was who won the Continuation War, and why Palme and Kekkonen were important.
When the Scandinavian Studies Centre started to look at the Scandinavia through Australian eyes our main interests were cultural and contemporary. Over the years we have got a lot wrong. Anyone trying to understand contemporary history is bound to. We did not foresee the collapse of the USSR. We expected a Thermidorian reaction to peretroika, with all that would mean for Finland and the North. We though the Balts hopeless optimistic in their reading of their future prospects for sovereignty. And we guessed wrong on Norway and the EU membership. Our initial analysis of the North was quite simple: Finland and Norway were subject nations for centuries, under the Swedes and the Danes primarily but then in the Napoleonic aftermath doubly cursed by two new masters. We thought that the Finnish and Norwegian response to this was to re-invent their national identity and to liberate themselves through cultural guerrilla warfare as much as anything. A complication was that, as in the Irish Case, the colonial plantation caste provided most of the national romantics, who had been disowned or rebadged after independence in 1905 and 1917, but by and large the Swedes and the Danes were top dogs in the region, and the smaller players never forgave them. This analysis fitted reasonably well, even though it largely ignored as irrelevant the racial and linguistic roots of the majority of Finns. We under estimated the importance of geographic determinism in the Norwegian case.
When decided what to teach and what to conduct research on, we looked first at the materials accessible in the English language. For example, the lives of Strindberg, Ibsen, Sibelius, Grieg, Blixten, Nobel, Manerheim, Palme, and many others. From the large reservoir of information the biographies of the Nordic heroes and villains gave us, the research expanded in a wide variety of diverse questions, issues and phenomenon: Strindberg as pictorial artist, the influence of Munch on Karl Larrson, the generosity of Swedish legal aid, the puzzling insistence on whale eating in Norway, the collapse of social democracy and the welfare state, environmental and feminist issues.
To share the research results of other groups of collaborators, the Centre set up an electronic journal, Nordic Notes.
By and large Australians have looked at Scandinavia from the Napoleonic period to the near present. They have looked at the sort of issues raised by Frank Meyer, that is, what is the difference between a Swede, a Norwegian, a Dane and a Finn. The answer can be explained in the elephant joke, which no doubt you have heard. The most representative savants in Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden were shown a picture of something that did not exist in their motherland, and in a Rorschach’s ink blot type test were told to write an essay on it. The Swede called his essay "how to organise elephants", the Dane’s title was "the elephant and pornography", the Finn called his "what the elephant thinks of Finland" and the Norwegian wrote "Norway and the Norwegians". On a serious level, we have thought a lot about the relationship between cultural and political change, and without getting too much into the vexed question of national stereotypes, explored how to differentiate the dissimilarities and tensions between the four Nordic neighbours, so near and yet so far apart.