For most of my life, I thought I knew what it meant to be an Australian on Australia Day. A barbecue, a few beers, a game of backyard cricket and a laugh with good mates seemed to me to be the ingredients that, when combined, could produce a bloody good Australia Day.
This year, I will celebrate our national day with all four of these elements featuring at some point but it will be the first time in my life that I will truly appreciate why I am so privileged to have grown up with this culture and how important it is for us all to build on the values that make us Australians so unique.
Having recently returned home from a month of volunteer work in north-western Sri Lanka, an area devastated by 30 years of civil war, my eyes have finally been opened to just how lucky I am to have been raised in this country and the opportunities I have been given as an Australian citizen.
On our national day, we should each take some time to reflect and personally consider our situation and the impact we can have on improving our culture. No matter what our individual history or heritage, we are all Australians and we all have the responsibility to contribute to a shared vision of what we stand for as a people and as a nation.
The recent spate of coward punches and alcohol-fuelled street violence has been the focus of much public debate and these acts are in no way a reflection of what we seek to stand for as a fair and moral society. They are mindless acts of violence committed by individuals detached from what it means to be a respectable and decent citizen.
But rather than attacking the offenders who have committed these crimes, why don't we instead put our energy into changing the culture that has created them?
If we are to develop decent Australian citizens and make lasting changes to prevent these acts, we must take action and engage our people to recognise the shared values that they are responsible for upholding.
What we require is an Australian model committed to making a lasting cultural change, a change for good, a change for peace and a stand against the destructive mentality that exists on our streets.
One idea that has been put forward is the idea of an Australian program based on the values of the US Peace Corps.
On Australia Day 1988, at the bicentenary of white settlement, Geoffrey Robertson lamented that ''there was no equivalent of the Peace Corps or the Volunteer Services Organisation''.
On the 50th anniversary of the US Peace Corps in 2011, Australia Day ambassador P.J. Shanmugan argued that it ''would be wise to invest and model a program similar to the Peace Corps and engage it fully in our region'' and that Australia had no ''cultural school or institution to send abroad to promote Australian values, history or culture''.
There are two government-run programs at present that allow Australians to make a positive use of their time and skills in helping developing nations.
These are the AYAD (Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development) and the ACC (Australian Civilian Corps). But they are limited in their range, scope and outlook and don't allow those without qualifications or experiences to take part.
A new program - accessible to all Australians, young and old, from the builder to the banker - would have lasting benefit if it was dedicated to promoting peace and smart diplomacy in our region, while also spreading Australian values and improving international relations.
Such a program would promote cultural change and be committed to developing good citizens who value each other as much as they value themselves.
Rather than be hamstrung by knowledge and experience, focus instead on character and values. Rather than requiring a master's degree, provide young Australians with a deeper understanding of their shared national identity and install a sense of national pride. An independent, government-run program based on the values of the US Peace Corps would contribute to a better world.
If my journey to Sri Lanka has taught me anything, it is that peace at home is an outcome I want for my children and for all future generations of Australians. If an average guy like me, who works, studies and enjoys a beer and a game of cricket on Australia Day, can travel to a foreign country and find lasting benefits from it, then imagine what a program like this could do for others in a similar position or worse.
Article appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald