The last thing we need this morning is another lament about protests at Waitangi and this will not be one. I like the fact that our national day is a kind of thermometer of our post-colonial project. But I am not at Waitangi this morning and I wasn't there last year because I don't think it fairly represents Maori thinking any more.

Possibly it never did. I first went there when Jenny Shipley became Prime Minister and made it her mission to return to the Treaty ground. I deeply admired her for it. Lange and Bolger should never have let a rowdy and rude reception keep them away. There are ways to preserve dignity in these situations. Bolger never went back after somebody trampled on the flag and spat at the Governor General. Shipley said she would have gone to the flag, picked it up, folded it and taken it back to her seat.

Waitangi was a revelation to somebody who had grown up in the South Island with no Maori connections whatsoever. Te Tii Marae was host to hundreds of campers from other tribes. The Maori sovereignty flags were flying, waka were on the beach, Maori food, art and social programmes were available from the kiosks. Women dressed in black kept a relaxed eye on children and watched waka parties perform and protest marches form with equal pride.

Next morning, in the darkness before the dawn, some of the country's highest-ranking figures in politics, justice and public service shuffled into the meeting house in their socks and sat on the floor. Around the walls, the seats were taken by elders with their walking sticks which they soon used for oratory.

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Long speeches were given in a language I didn't understand and didn't need to. This was a heritage of centuries. It was the essence of New Zealand, existing nowhere else, and it was profoundly enriching for those of us lucky enough to be there. It left me thinking this culture could not be denied the national expression that all ethnicities need somewhere. Maori nationalism was real in those days, I wonder if it still is.

John Key also grew up in the South Island with not much connection to Maori and started going to Waitangi when he entered Parliament. He too has said he found it a revelation. By the time he came to power a distinct Maori Party had displaced Labour in most of the Maori electorates. He wanted that party in his government. Maori had achieved a place in the power structure.

Maori have considered the possibilities of an independent place in New Zealand politics and said yeah, nah.

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I wondered if Key realised what could happen. He probably hadn't read the thinking of sovereignty strategists who envisaged a Maori house of Parliament whose public debates and decisions would carry weight with governments. In the Maori Party they now had a means of carrying weight.

But nothing of the sort happened. Soon after the Maori Party accepted Key's invitation it began to become apparent Maori politics is not so very different from the mainstream. Socio-economic class proved more important than ethnic identity as Marxists have always said, but I didn't believe it until I saw the old Waitangi protest leaders leave the Maori Party and form the far left "Mana" with Matt McCarten, Sue Bradford and John Minto.

Since then, Maori voters have steadily gravitated back to the Labour Party and I often wonder whether they are as surprised as I am. None of us really know the minds of our own people until we hold a vote. The collective mind of Maori has considered the possibilities and challenges of an independent place in New Zealand politics and said yeah, nah.

So where from here? Probably not to Waitangi again. I'd noticed the number of visiting iwi diminishing in latter years. Elders no longer speak at the dawn karakia. People sit on chairs and clerics say a few prayers. The protests are no longer about land loss and resources, just standard left-wing issues of the day such as asset sales and the TPP.

Other iwi are far ahead of Ngapuhi with Treaty settlements and investments. It's an embarrassment that the largest tribe, hosts of the Treaty and the national birthplace, is not in better condition. Years ago I was standing at the big tent at Te Tii with the Herald's Maori affairs reporter at that time, Jon Stokes. As we listened briefly to someone speaking certifiable nonsense, Jon said to me, "This is not where Maori are, you know."

What a pity Waitangi is not in the care of a better tribe, and what a pity the only face of Maori politics the public continues to see are those on the streets of Auckland this week damning an economic agreement in which 12 Pacific nations uniquely recognise New Zealand's governing Treaty.