The 2022 AABS Australasia Conference will be held on October 8 at RMIT University in Melbourne, marking a milestone with its 20th biennial iteration. The AABS Australasian chapter invites submissions on Baltic Studies in Australasia in the context of the renewed relevance of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in global events and on the changing world stage, particularly in relation to the war on Ukraine. Please find the Call for Papers here, and join the AABS Australasia Facebook Group here.
Delaney Skerrett (PhD, The University of Queensland) is the President of the Australasian Chapter of AABS, in which capacity he organizes, with the help of the other committee members, the biannual AABS Australasian conference. He also maintains a Facebook page for the Chapter promoting Baltic studies in Australasia and beyond. In his PhD dissertation, he critically analyzed Estonia’s progress in normalizing the interethnic use of Estonian in the post-1991 independence era. He also researched Estonian language policy for his Masters, which he did at the University of Tartu. Delaney spent over 7 years living in Estonia studying and teaching. Today, Delaney is a registered psychologist in Brisbane, Australia, having done a Master of Professional Psychology at the Australian Catholic University. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia in Brisbane.
AABS met with him to discuss the 2022 AABS Australasia conference and what he is looking forward to. The transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Our conversation took place in July 2022.
© Delaney Skerrett
AABS: To start, can you introduce yourself and give us a brief history of the Australasian conference?
DS: My name is Delaney Skerrett, and I’m the President of the Australasian Chapter of AABS. I’ve been in this position for ten years now. It’s a little bit different to the way things run in the US where the role changes for every conference, because we are such a small organization. We’re a bit more limited in who we’ve got to run the roles in the committee. Since I’ve been in the role, it’s been basically the same three of us as the secretary, the treasurer, and the president.
Obviously, we’re a smaller country and we have fewer people involved in the field. Unlike the US, we don’t have the funded chairs in Baltic Studies in Australian universities. We have one private university, but the rest are all public, so what’s taught in Australian universities is just on a supply-and-demand basis, and unfortunately there’s less demand for Baltic Studies. There are some of us who endeavor to do work in the field, but it’s a smaller affair than it is in the United States. That said, this is our 20th biennial conference, so we’re not too far behind the US; we’ve got a long history.
My background in the area is that I have Estonian and Latvian grandparents on my mother’s side. I became interested in my heritage and went and spent some time over there in my late 20s and ended up living in Estonia for eight years. I did a master’s degree in Baltic Studies at the University of Tartu, and then following on from that, I did a PhD in Estonian language policy at the University of Queensland back here in Australia.
AABS: What’s new for this conference, compared with previous years?
DS: Certainly the pandemic had the same effect on us as it did on the US AABS conference in that we had to cancel our last one. We were tentatively planning to hold that in Perth, so it would have been the first time it would have been on the west coast of Australia, similar to how the [2020 AABS conference in Charlotte] would have been the first time in the south of the US. Unfortunately that couldn’t go ahead.
What’s different this year, just like with the US conference, is that we’ll be hosting a hybrid conference with online participants as well. It will be held in Melbourne, which is the place it generally gets held. It’s always been in the state of Victoria, at least over the last few years, but that tends to be where Baltic Studies has its focus in Australia. It’s the first time it will be held at RMIT University, at least since I’ve been involved. Previous years we’ve been at Monash and at University of Melbourne.
In terms of the focus, we’re returning to a focus on issues in Ukraine again, obviously related to the invasion. We did that as well when we had the conference back at Monash University in 2014. We had an invited roundtable back then, which we haven’t done this time, as we’re leaving it more open to see who’s wanting to come and talk about the issue.
AABS: For a lot of our members based in North America and Europe, there may not be a whole lot of understanding about the landscape of Baltic Studies, or what the Baltic diasporas look like, in Australia and New Zealand. Could you provide a bit of context and talk about what role this conference serves for the community?
DS: Australia was one of the main countries where the Displaced Persons from the refugee camps in Europe went to from the Baltic states after the Second World War. So we have a significant Baltic diaspora here, of course smaller than what you’d have in places in North America, but certainly significant in terms of worldwide population for the Baltic countries.
In more recent years, those populations, particularly from Estonia, have started to expand, because Estonia has, and I believe Latvia will have this soon, a working holiday visa arrangement with Australia. This means that young people can come and work in the country for a period of time, one to two years depending on what you do when you’re here. But then obviously what happens is that some people get sponsored to stay longer and stay on, or they’ll meet someone and stay here through some kind of partnership visa. What that has meant is that the Estonian population has definitely expanded in recent years in Australia. I’m also the honorary consul for Estonia here in Brisbane, so I know quite a bit about the local Estonian population here and how many people there are here.
And likewise with New Zealand: there is a population there, but it’s definitely smaller in comparison to Australia, both with New Zealand being a smaller country but also because it didn’t have that large intake of refugees after World War II.
In fact, people from the Baltic states are credited with introducing Australians to the idea that we could have immigrants from non-Anglo backgrounds coming to Australia. Up until World War II, Australia was very much an Anglo-centric country. The immigration minister at the time realized that we needed to expand our population, because we have a very large country in terms of size but a very small population. So when they first went to Europe, and to the Displaced Persons camps, and started to look for people to expand the Australian population, one of the first peoples that they got to come over were the people from the Baltic states. They were even given a nickname in the Australian media: The Beautiful Balts.
AABS: You’ve mentioned the presence of Baltic Studies in Australia is relatively limited, and yet also there is this growing Estonian population coming in, on top of the diaspora and descendants of immigrants. Where do you see the conference going in the future? What do you see as its role in the future?
DS: The conference has a very strong role in terms of maintaining this tradition of Baltic Studies in Australia. It doesn’t have so much of a formal position in Australian universities, but there’s always somebody doing something within Baltic Studies in Australia. The conference is a place to be able to come and display these efforts in the field and showcase what people are doing. It’s had a pivotal role in bringing people together and allowing people to have a stage to be able to discuss and display their research outcomes.
You’re right in talking about the importance of the diaspora, and even people who have come more recently. We’ve had a couple in recent years who have participated in conferences. We do tend to have people taking part in the conferences who are the diaspora and descendants. But at the same time, just as you get in the US Baltic Studies conference, you have people who have no ethnic connection with the Baltic states but have somehow ended up being interested in studying something related to the area.
AABS: What are you excited for at the conference?
DS: One thing that came to mind, and what’s different, is that this will be a hybrid conference, which opens us up to having more participants from overseas. In the past couple of conferences we have had a few people come from overseas, particularly as I always attend the US conference and always speak there about our upcoming Australasia conference. That usually plants the seed in a few peoples’ heads about heading on down under to talk about Baltic Studies. Most recently, at the last conference, we had a few people from Estonia and a couple people from India. Having the hybrid version obviously opens us up to having more participants from overseas, so that’s something I’m excited about.
The other thing is that over the last few years, we’ve had an Estonian embassy in Australia, and recently Latvia and Lithuania have opened embassies as well, so that gives us the opportunity to involve diplomatic staff members and get their input, especially given the importance of Baltic diplomacy given the current world situation.