MORE than 2 million Australians were born in Asia and our Indian-born population has more than trebled in a decade, but mainstream television, other than SBS, rarely reflects this fact.
Newsreaders and current affairs show hosts are almost exclusively white. And while The Slap was hailed for mirroring contemporary life, the average family drama is still palely Eurocentric. Is this an innocent case of the blonde leading the bland or a subtle form of racism?
The ABC provides stellar news coverage, from News Breakfast to Lateline. But as journalist Margaret Simons recently observed: ''Anyone watching ABC's main news and current events shows could be forgiven for thinking that Australia was still a nation composed of blond or red-headed, blue-eyed Anglo Celts.''
Most commercial TV dramas inhabit an eerily pale Australia of yesteryear. The Neighbours website features 17 white actors and one (Gemma Pranita) whose father is Thai. Winners and Losers had 11 white leads and one ''part-Asian''. Home and Away has 22 white leads plus Jay Laga'aia. Packed to the Rafters features a loveable white family. All Saints, a medical drama that ran until late 2009, was spectacularly fictitious. ''How can a show that is based entirely around a hospital have no brown or Asian doctors?'' asked Melbourne comedian Nazeem Hussain.
The ABC's charter requires it to ''reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community'', and it's making some headway. We have had The Slap and recent series from comedian Lawrence Leung and chef Poh Ling Yeow. Still, prime-time ABC brims with British shows. It rarely reflects the everyday world of my daughters' state school, where their classmates have Chinese, Lebanese, Anglo-Celtic, Polynesian, Indian and Vietnamese ancestry.
On commercial screens, multicultural Australia bursts into focus only on reality TV. The X Factor finalists, for instance, included R&B trio Three Wishez who are, respectively, ''Tongan-New Caledonian, full Greek and African-British''. This year's Masterchef contestants included Sri Lankan-born Kumar Pereira and Malaysian-Australian Billy Law. On The Amazing Race Australia, Melbourne Muslims Mohammed El-leissy and Mostafa Haroun were a hit.
Though it's great to see this wider spectrum of ''ordinary Australians'', there's a degree of tokenism and typecasting here. (And reality TV also includes Bondi Rescue and Border Security). The Block, meanwhile, was recently criticised by Multicultural Arts Victoria for its lack of ethnic diversity.
Of course SBS was set up by the Fraser government specifically as a multicultural broadcaster. It has been accused of chasing ratings at the expense of its charter and last week new chief Michael Ebeid emphasised that its purpose was to ''inspire all Australians to explore and appreciate our multicultural world'' and contribute to an inclusive society.
Two of SBS's best recent shows, East West 101 and Go Back To Where You Came From, have been truly ground-breaking, inviting viewers to investigate assumptions about religion or race or refugees. Still, since SBS began, Australia has become a lot more Asian and the number of free-to-air channels has tripled. You would think this would have made mainstream TV more representative. But change has been slow.
Almost half Australia's population was born overseas or has one parent born elsewhere. While British and New Zealanders are still the two biggest migrant groups, they are followed by Chinese and Indians. Our Vietnamese-born community is almost as big as our Italian one and recent new settlers have come from Iraq, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines.
This week, Victorian Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Minister Nick Kotsiras said that up to a third of the students in classes he visited did not feel Australian. ''What makes you feel that you're not part of Victoria, not part of Australia?'' he asked. ''Our young people, when they grow up, if they keep that impression then that would cause some frictions. We need to see why and then try programs to assist them to feel part of … Team Australia.''
Kotsiras' comments seemed purely anecdotal and had a whiff of the dog whistle. But if kids from India or Vietnam or Somalia saw more people who looked like them on TV, might they feel more a part of Team Australia? Hussain, whose parents are Sri Lankan-born, recalls getting excited as a kid when he saw any non-white person on TV. It was that rare.
TV can bring us together, bridging cultural or religious divides. Civil society evolves and finds shared values and narratives through entertainment, says Andrew Jakubowicz, professor of sociology at Sydney's University of Technology. ''There is a crisis of recognition of diversity in Australian public culture which gnaws at the heart of the country,'' he has written. ''It is racism at its most systematic, unselfconscious and destructive.'' (And yes, I'm aware of the irony of myself - an Anglo-Celtic journalist - lamenting TV's lack of diversity.)
Why is TV so white? Does the existence of SBS, despite the wonderful shows it makes, allow commercial producers to regard non-white communities as a kind of ghetto? Does racism influence some programming decisions? Ten's appalling new breakfast show host, New Zealander Paul Henry, has form for making racist comments about Indians and Hispanics.
Or is commercially driven caution the chief problem? ''Executives want shows that rate,'' Hussain says. ''They're not willing to try something risky because their career is at stake. And having non-white people in a show is something they think is risky … It needs to be normalised.''
White Australia has faded into history. Surely it's time for commercial TV executives to look at the world around them.