The Māori flag was flying from the Harbour Bridge again on Waitangi Day. It looked a bit lost. I pointed it out to the grandchildren on our way to the Ngāti Whātua festivities at Ōkahu Bay. They gazed at its design with interest but were too young, fortunately, to ask what it meant. I'm no longer sure.

It flies in the name of tino rangatiratanga, "Māori sovereignty". I've always thought Māori nationalism was more accurate. I thought Māori were a nation, that is, people sharing a distinct language culture and heritage and a determination to make their own decisions. That last bit, self-determination, is the element that makes a people a nation.

Māori seemed to have all the elements of a nation when I first went to Waitangi the year Jenny Shipley took the Government back there after a few years' absence. The Māori flags were flying at the marae at the end of the road along the beach, just before you cross the narrow bridge to the Treaty site. A tent village had sprung up with kiosks selling food, art and black tino rangatiratanga T-shirts.

There was a picturesque stockade and a circle of carved poles and a big marquee where Shipley's ministers sat that year to listen to, well, diatribes mostly. But the waka in the bay were enchanting and their youthful crews when they came ashore to perform haka with white paddles were magnificent.

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Among the crowd watching them, older Māori women in long black dresses and with a white flower in their hair, watched with amused pride and a kind of timeless familiarity. I felt like a visitor, which I was.

Next morning in darkness I followed the official party into the carved meeting house in the Treaty Grounds. Sitting on the floor I heard the oratory of old men in a language I didn't understand. But in their cadences and gestures you could hear the echoes of centuries of men speaking like this, right here in this country. When it was theirs.

And as you listened, you also sensed how brief the present really was. A century or two of colonisation was nothing this culture could not survive, a blip of history, a temporary overlay of stiff, clumsy, tongue-tied Britishness that had superseded a lot of culture that would spring back to life in time. The Treaty was the key.

I went back every year for many years. I found Waitangi so convincing that, given a media fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in 2005 to study anything I wanted, I set out to discover how a post-colonial state might successfully express two nations. I didn't find the answer but I read some useful political philosophy, most by Canadians who challenged the liberal principle that every vote in a democracy needs to have the same value.

They also reasoned why indigenous minorities need a sense of national self-determination and immigrant minorities do not. (Immigrants' ethnic identity has international recognition and self determination elsewhere.)

Back here at that time the newly formed Māori Party was gearing up for its first election. It won four of the seven Māori seats that year. Three years later it won five and was invited to join the incoming Government. I remember wondering if John Key knew what he was making possible. It seemed to me quite possible the Māori Party could set up a regular open assembly of iwi and regional representatives that would channel a Māori view, very publicly, into the Government.

But nothing like that happened. Instead, the Māori Party started losing its seats to Labour. The last of them disappeared last year. It was though Māori voters had taken a long, hard look at the possibility of asserting a national identity and found they didn't really want it. They felt safer in the Labour family after all.

At Cambridge I read some Marxist thinkers who argued nationality was an artificial construct, designed by the ruling class to distract and divide the working classes from their common material interests. The Labour Party is not that extreme but at Waitangi this week Jacinda Ardern stressed the material needs of Māori over constitutional questions and Treaty claims and reportedly she was well received.

I stopped going to Waitangi a few years ago when I realised the place had made a fool of me. Labour has proved it knows Māori much better than I do.

Meanwhile the flag on the Auckland Harbour Bridge is a lonely reminder of one of the Māori Party's modest achievements. Pita Sharples wanted it to be flown there on Waitangi Day and Key thought why not? It has been up there every year since, although it looks a bit pointless now.