Key Points:

For a radical academic who has been described as the female Don Brash, Elizabeth Rata is a surprise. She is a small woman, fashionably dressed right down to a pair of boots fastened with ribbons. Her voice is soft, her manners impeccable.

She writes in an academic style that is as dense, dry and flammable as gunpowder. She speaks slowly, selecting long and scholarly words. It is only when you decipher her sentences, phrase by phrase, word by gently delivered word, that you realise they are spiked with seriously unpopular ideas.

Public Policy and Ethnicity, the Politics of Ethnic Boundary Making, the book edited by Rata and Roger Openshaw and published by Palgrave, the British-based arm of Macmillan this week, is bound to be controversial. Rata argues that public policy, formed along racial rather than egalitarian lines, is undemocratic and that racial divisions, knitted into the culture by government funding policies, are undemocratic and dangerous.

Although her book was launched by Prime Minister Helen Clark, there was little fanfare. Just 50-odd academics and Clark, who welcomed Rata's effort as a hard book, not politically correct - and said that the authors should be applauded for raising tough issues.

Rata acknowledges that she is urging the country to reconsider some of the most sensitive issues and policies of our time. Her book is written with 13 other academics, including thinkers Jonathan Friedman, Erich Kolig, Alain Babadzan, Christopher Tremewan and Roger Openshaw. Friedman and Babadzan, internationally renowned anthropologists, will give their views about the the global politics of ethnicity and culture at Auckland University's Anatomy of Power symposium next Saturday.

Rata is different in other ways, too. She refuses to talk about herself, her family, her culture, her past. She says to do so would take the discussion away from the ideas.

It is also an ingenious way to protect herself.

"I don't talk about myself because I want to be able to separate who I am and my ideas - I really like the idea that the arguments themselves should stand or fall on their own merits. It makes it easier for people to attack them," she says. "I also regard things like religion, ethnicity and lifestyle as not in the public domain.

"I do the research and writing then it's out there for people to attack. And if they're any good, the ideas will survive."

She shies away from emotional words like a frightened filly: "The type of name-calling and personal abuse that has passed for discussion is just inadequate. It polarises people - and stops them thinking."

She does talk about her academic career, which has been outstanding. In the early 80s she was a keen secondary school teacher and promoter of our first kura kaupapa. "I was strongly motivated by education, social justice, those ideals."

Her PhD was in the philosophy of education, her thesis was an investigation of Maori revival and retribalisation. Which is when she realised the policies were back-firing. The results astounded her.

"My research threw up the opposite of what I thought I'd find - that retribalisation would serve the interests of social justice - so disproving my original argument."

Rata discovered the emergence of what she calls "neotribal capitalism". In other words, once Maori tribes were given back assets, they behaved just like white New Zealanders. The aggressive and adventurous grabbed the spoils, the rest remained as poor as ever.

From there Rata embarked on a career aimed at showing the flaws in our bicultural policies. Her first book, A Political Economy of Neotribal Capitalism (2000) published by Lexington Books, US, looked at how policies designed to liberate indigenous peoples have resulted in the formation of powerful and wealthy elites.

Its major case study was the country's northernmost iwi, Ngati Kuri, and detailed the establishment of a whanau-based oyster farming operation. Even though it illustrates her thesis brilliantly, Rata looks openly dismayed at the final outcome of those two decades of struggle and hard work.

Just last week Justice Colin Nicholson proclaimed the deputy chairman of Ngati Kuri's Board, Hine Lelievre and her brother, both of Rata Consultants, acted corruptly. They were planning to reward themselves with $200,000 and a BMW each.

So what are Rata's ideas? Basically, that the bicultural, Maori-Pakeha movement in New Zealand has been a mistake, that it is subverting democracy, erecting ethnic boundaries between Maori and non-Maori and promoting a cultural elite within Maoridom.

Although it might have been an unintended consequence, "biculturalism has actually led to the formation of ethnic boundaries between Maori and non-Maori - led to separatism. It also led to the belief that somehow our ethnicity was our primary identity - more basic than any other identity we could choose.

"Many New Zealanders originally supported Maori retribalism because they saw it as a means to much greater social justice - and my argument is that, in fact the opposite has happened - that group of poor marginalised Maori is in the same position now."

And, says Rata, that is just the beginning. Her serious concern is that if the treaty (always with a small t), and the bicultural principles attributed to it, gets written into any upcoming constitution, our culture of democracy is doomed.

She is talking about democracy in the egalitarian sense, which, in most democratic societies, overrides ethnic categorisation. She points out that New Zealand, with one of the longest-standing democracies in the world, is already threatening its record with the inclusion of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi in government policy.

ALL this, of course, was unintended - and motivated by the thirst for public good and greater social justice. The movement towards change was spearheaded by an academic and political elite that came out of the best universities in Canada, the US, Australia, Britain and France in the 1960s.

They were idealist, radicalised, pragmatic and focused firmly on the common good. Their drive to improve the chances of indigenous peoples was eagerly adopted by a new professional middle class, which was already looking to the past and to local identities after a crisis in the global economy.

And their ideas captured the way that decent people thought. Within two decades their primary goal - that the leaders of various ethnic groups should be brought into government institutions, policies and practices and change things from within - were achieved.

In New Zealand, those people were Maori and, as Rata says, the idea was adopted with typical fervour. "For us it is more insidious, more subversive because we've gone further in the inclusion of ethnicity as a political category."

If all this wasn't coming out of the mouth of a softly spoken older woman who keeps the argument strictly academic, one could be outraged. Biculturalism is threatening democracy. "You get inside a system and subvert it. Destroy from within."

She claims an intellectual orthodoxy (she calls it culturalism) backed by a small political and academic elite from both sides of the political spectrum, has dominated New Zealand politics and social sciences, particularly in education, for the past two decades.

"There are two sides to culturalism. The small elite group who promoted it and the much larger group who allowed it to happen - and all in the name of social justice. And of course, social justice can't be found along the path of ethnic division."

That same group has taken ethnicity into government then politicised it. "It's almost as though if you don't espouse culturalist views, career paths are cut off for people in higher education and government service."

The significant events that followed included the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act, 1985, which backdated traditional claims; the classification of people ethnically; the categorisation of these ethnic groups (within mental health, education etc); and institutionalisation of ethnicity at all levels.

"The elevation of the Treaty of Waitangi to such an authoritative, almost unchallengeable, orthodoxy, deserves intense scrutiny," wrote Rata in 2003 in a paper on The Treaty and Neotribal Capitalism.

At the time she was a Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Now, three years later, she has expanded on the subject.

She points to the University of Auckland's Education Handbook for BA and Diploma students. Number Four reads: "Teacher education programmes will develop the knowledge and skills necessary to practise in ways that are consistent with the Treaty of Waitangi."

But the biggest problem, says Rata, is that no one will talk about what is happening. "Somehow our history, and the place of ethnicity, has an iron grip. It stifles the type of rigorous national discussion that we need - and that this book has been written to promote."

Although she argues that there is "a silent retreat" from the idea of ethnic identity among middle-class professionals and she has debated it last year at universities in Montpellier, France and Manchester, England, the local argument is being conducted behind closed doors.

"Because we've believed for so long that this is the way forward, we're stuck. We need to get out of this impasse. But first we need the discussion. We need the ability to talk again, to reconsider, to change our minds on the basis of arguments and evidence.

"Where is the constant arguing, the tough debate?" she asks. "We're allowing a small, neotribal elite to have an enormously strong influence on a possible future constitution, which could contain ethnic group rights. It's not a battle, I'm not evangelising. I don't care if no one agrees with me at all. I find the ideas fascinating.

"Let's not do the New Zealand thing and leap at the first solution that appears attractive. If we do want to have a founding document then the Treaty would be a candidate [as would the 1852 Constitution Act] but we do need to have the discussion."

* Dr Elizabeth Rata's book will be available at the Anatomy of Power Symposium, a Joint Universitas 21 Project with Lund University, Sweden, on Saturday November 11, 2pm-6pm, University of Auckland Conference Centre, 22 Symonds St. Speakers are Jonathan Friedman, Paris and Sweden; Alain Babadzan, Montpellier University. Admission is free.