<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com </i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Last Australia Day, I was in Coles, shopping for something innocently patriotic such as grapes or Jatz crackers, when I stumbled upon merchandise altogether more risque. Set high on a display stand was a pyramid of condom packets, in green and gold packaging, festooned with the Australian flag.

''Stand proud'', winked the label, which boasted that its product would deliver ''the best sex downunder''.

I have never considered January 26 a particularly erotic holiday, but it's possible I lack imagination.

Patriotism drives people to do all sorts of crazy things, and on balance, it's preferable for Coles customers to make responsible love to each other, rather than riot or get Southern Cross tattoos.

The fact that marketers have gotten their sticky fingers on our national day is alarming, however. Now Australia Day has a ''brand'', around which false needs can be created by advertisers.

We saw the same thing last week when retailers were forced, by much online clamouring, to withdraw from sale a T-shirt printed with the words ''Australia, est. 1788''.

The shame was not the silly claim that the T-shirt was racist. It was that yet another public holiday is being commercialised beyond recognition.

I am not quite sure what the Australia Day ''brand'' is, but (apart from having nationalistic sex), it probably involves drinking beer, having a barbecue, enjoying cricket, or the beach, or beach cricket, wearing an Australia flag bikini, and venerating Australia's Gallipoli legacy - all of them noble pursuits. With the exception of the bikini - those things are unforgivable.

Australia Day is largely peaceful, of course, but over the last decade it has taken on a boozy, jingoistic sheen, with young people literally wrapping themselves in flags, drinking and fighting in the name of the nation. Musical festivals such as the Big Day Out, which used to be havens for pale and peaceful indie-music dorks, have become overtly macho. Alcohol bans are in place around much of Sydney's harbour and beaches, to protect picnicking families from drunks and boors - a uniquely Australian phenomenon, this alcohol ban, but you won't find anyone boasting about it in speeches on national pride.

This drink-soaked patriotism feels particularly yucky this year, given the public outcry about alcohol-related violence and the dark side of Australian masculinity.

But these are dangerous times to question any aspect of Australian-ness.

Sure, we may have a problem with a punching culture, but public drunkenness celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove? That's just Aussie lads being Aussie lads!

Now that Education Minister Christopher Pyne has raised in the political debate the holy cow of Gallipoli, things can only get tediously worse.

Pyne claims there is not enough focus on Gallipoli in schools, and cites this as a primary reason for his review of the national curriculum - which, in itself, looks like a tactical distraction from the debate about school funding and the Gonski model.

Why talk about funding inequity when you can hide behind a generalised love of country?

This year is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, which will be rightly commemorated in Europe and Australia, but we should also prepare ourselves for a tiresome public debate about the true meaning of the so-called Great War and how lefties hate Diggers and want to desecrate their legacy.

You can already see the beginnings of it in some tabloids - culture wars over the wording on the tomb of the unknown soldier, attacks on former prime minister Paul Keating for daring to suggest World War I was an unjust war fought solely to protect imperial and colonial interests.

Sadly enough, just as we followed the British into Gallipoli, we are following them into this debate. A few weeks ago, British education secretary Michael Gove wrote a piece for Britain's Daily Mail lambasting the "left-wing myths" about the First World War that had been peddled by historians and TV programs, which portray the war as a "misbegotten shambles" and clear Germany of any blame.

Gove has also rewritten the school history curriculum.

Has Pyne been taking notes?

Keating has famously said he will never visit Gallipoli. He doesn't know what he is missing - it is fascinating for any history-lover, and not at all sentimental. It is also hauntingly beautiful and full of crazy Turks who fall upon Australians with immediate friendship and offers of tea.

When I visited, I realised that while I knew the history of the campaign as well as any other former Australian school student, I had no idea why Gallipoli was geographically significant, why the fighting took place there exactly, on this strange little peninsula in a country many Diggers probably couldn't have pointed to on a map before they were shipped there.

It was all about securing supply routes to Russia, of course. But there seemed something so random to it - the way all these Australian corpses ended up in this funny little spot - just as there is a randomness to being born Australian in the first place, instead of Norwegian or Chinese.

On Australia Day, we should, by all means, celebrate our good fortune, the hiccup of fate that means we get to live in Australia rather than Somalia, whether we were born here or immigrated.

But why would we be proud of that?

The fact that we are Australian is dumb luck, just as it is to be born beautiful or athletic. The only exceptions are immigrants who worked hard to get here.

Australian-ness is not an accomplishment in and of itself, but what we do with it can be.