Indigenous minorities need a voice - and government is better for it.

It's been a long time since my heart dropped to the floor as heavily as it did the night Mike Hosking declared middle New Zealand was opposed to Maori seats on local bodies. I'm blessed, or cursed, with boundless optimism for this country.

A small population, well educated and politically engaged, can do things that are much harder in a big democracy where even people of the dominant culture can feel powerless and excluded from the country's decisions.

It is 25 years since Jim Bolger and Sir Doug Graham brought the National Party in behind Treaty settlements, nearly eight years since John Key formed an enduring partnership with the Maori Party. I have dared to think that conservative opinion has come around to accepting Maori have a distinctive place in our affairs and that we are better for it.

That's Key's view. Though strictly he didn't need the Maori Party's parliamentary votes, he wanted them in his ministry because, he said, "I just thought it would make us a better government."

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So I watched Seven Sharp's item on the resigning Mayor of New Plymouth with a certain sadness. The poor fellow has had enough of the isolation and abuse he has received since he attempted to set up seats on his council for a Maori electorate. I don't know Taranaki well but it appeared the country's post-colonial project has yet to reach at least one of its extremities.

Hosking's reaction was quite different. The problem, he declared, is that the man is out of touch with middle New Zealand. If Maori want to be on councils they can stand for election like everyone else. Simple as that. He said it with the stone cold certainty of all his pronouncements.

Is he right? I had a sinking feeling that night that he must be. Hosking is only one man and was speaking from gut instinct but he rules the ratings on breakfast radio and prime time television these days and you don't do that without a very good gut instinct.

I felt sad, ineffably sad for the country.

Over the following week I read many letters to the paper expressing views of Maori and the Treaty that we haven't been hearing for a while. The writers were equally confident they were the majority view.

Only one race in postcolonial countries needs dedicated seats on its governing bodies.

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When they were challenged last weekend by Lizzie Marvelly, writing from the viewpoint of a young person at home in both our national cultures, they became more vehement.

Some of them used the word racist. They are completely unaware of its irony for those who know what the word means. It doesn't simply mean racial discrimination and it never means discrimination in favour of a race without power.

A minority cannot practise racism unless it has power, as white South Africans did. More often racism is the use of a majority vote to deny a minority a fair say in the government of their country. This is not my opinion, it is the standard definition in the study of this subject. Opinion comes into play when you have to decide what is "a fair say in the government".

Most people polled in Taranaki, and possibly every region, insist a fair say is a vote with same weight as every other vote, no more, no less. That might not be possible in regions or cities where Maori number fewer than the population of a general electorate, but would it really matter?

Some councils have got dedicated Maori seats, though not Auckland's. Rodney Hide vetoed the seats to be set aside on the Auckland Council and we got instead two unelected Maori appointees with full voting rights. I watched the council's meetings for an entire day last year. The Maori representatives contributed nothing unless the chair asked for their view, and then it was always to ask what the council was going to do to consult Maori on the subject under discussion.

I suspect they would be saving the council the trouble if they had been elected to their seats. Electorates give representatives the legitimacy and confidence to speak for their people

Only one race in postcolonial countries needs dedicated seats on its governing bodies. Immigrant majorities don't need them, indigenous minorities do. Every race in the world wants to a place to call their own. Much of the trouble in the world arises from competing claims to the same place. That's why nationalism has a bad name but nationalism can't simply be repressed. It thrives on repression.

The task for countries accommodating more than one race with its national identity in it, is to find ways for the numerically weaker race to have its own distinct voice in government. That is what Maori representation is for. It is not much to ask, it might not be enough but it's essential. I thought we knew this.

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