How much self-rule is needed for Maori culture to be secure and its perpetuation assured? People who dismiss the Business Roundtable as another group of suits deny themselves a great deal of mental stimulation. It is a one-man think-tank, Roger Kerr, who is a classic liberal on the economy and most other subjects of public interest.

Classic liberals, as distinct from mild socialists who call themselves liberal, regard the individual, not society, as the base measure of what is good, wise and valid in government. They believe, with much support in recent history, that a default setting of individual opportunity rather than enforced equality produces a better society anyway.

But to my mind they have a blind spot. They don't believe in ethnicity. They can't, or don't want to, see that an ethnic identity is part of every individual's range of interests and rights.

Since English-speaking Europeans have many places in the modern world where their ethnicity is secure and its perpetuation assured, they are particularly impervious to the need of every race for just such a place.

Last year the Roundtable invited the Australian Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson to give its annual lecture in honour of Sir Ronald Trotter. Pearson believes the improvement of Aboriginal communities lies in more classic liberalism and less social welfare, more personal and family responsibility and less state dependence.

But not only that. He described the work he is doing on the Cape York Peninsula as having two dimensions: welfare reform and the status of indigenous cultures.

Mindful perhaps that his hosts are much more interested in the first subject than the second, he devoted the bulk of his speech to the better incentives he has built into his people's welfare system and made only a closing reference to the importance of their culture.

Most classic liberals have a conservative regard for tradition and heritage. Pearson tried to appeal to that side of their values.

Economic liberalism and social democracy's gifts of health and education were both necessary for survival but not sufficient, he said. "Self interest is the engine that starts to drive the vehicle of social and economic progress. But tradition drives the human will to exist."

He said, "Too many Australian conservatives don't understand this crucial point. They believe Aboriginal Australians will be content to survive physically and become prosperous and culturally assimilate into the great global English speaking tradition. We will not."

He was of course talking about New Zealand conservatives too. Though he signed off with a tribute to this country's cross-cultural accommodation - "a beacon of inspiration to the world", "creating a great civilisation in the southern Pacific" - none of us know where this project is going.

We are forced to think about it every year as Waitangi Day approaches. Liberal conservatives and even socialists, especially socialists, think the Treaty is little more than a property contract to be honoured.

Kerr said as much when introducing Pearson.

"Treaty settlements matter, but they are mainly about justice - righting where possible past wrongs," he said. "Such redistribution, as opposed to wealth creation through enterprise, can make only a limited contribution to economic and social well-being."

From both sides of Parliament we still hear the fiction that Treaty breaches are all that stand in the way of us becoming one people. Heaven forbid we ever become one people.

Labour may value diversity more than National but only up to a point. Socialist thinking has long treated ethnic allegiance with caution, believing it distracts minorities from the class interest they should share with labour in its eternal struggle with capital.

Both sides deeply fear "divisive" aspirations they hear from Maori today. How much self-determination is needed for an indigenous minority to be confident its identity is secure and its perpetuation assured?

National doesn't know, Labour doesn't know, probably the Maori Party doesn't know. But all three know, or accept, that assured Maori representation in places of power is a minimum.

The classic liberal party in Parliament, Act, resists even that. Rodney Hide's strict adherence to individual electoral equality has deprived Maori of two seats on the new Auckland Council for the time being.

The most liberal of principles can be invoked for racial advantage when it suits.

The question Act should ask itself is this: does it really not understand the Maori desire, or does it understand it very well and want to suppress it?

Progress would be easier if we knew why cultural survival matters so much. Pearson offered an explanation that seemed a little strained.

He suggested it was a response to "the imperfection and mystery of human nature".

"We may not know what the purpose of existence is, if there is one," he said, but homogenisation would "rob us of many possible attempts to answer the unsolvable existential enigmas".

I don't know about that but he speaks from a dispossessed culture, I don't. I should just listen.