Denis Dutton is keen to claim that the status and legitimacy of the state had been undermined by special rights for Maori. I would argue that the reverse is true.

A modern, democratic state can successfully gain the trust of its citizens only if it recognises the cultures of its various communities, majority and minority alike.

Perhaps Pakeha do feel aggrieved that this recognition has gone too far in the case of Maori, but an illiberal nationalism that curtails any recognition is not the answer.

The irony is that many of the views and suggestions now being aired may well have the effect of undermining the legitimacy of the state for Maori (why should they trust an institution that is unwilling to recognise what is important to them?) and encourage them to withdraw their participation.

But the idea that somehow the state itself is culturally neutral is misguided. Our institutions reflect European origins and the values of Pakeha in a variety of ways.

Something as simple as holidays - Easter, Christmas - embody the cultural and religious heritage of some, but not all, New Zealanders.

The manifestations of this majority culture are abundantly clear to many non-Pakeha and it may be helpful to describe, recognise and celebrate it more. It is part of who we all are.

In return, is the robustness of these institutions and our democracy eroded by recognising the cultures of minorities? Not in the experience of countries such as Canada, Belgium, Norway or Switzerland that enshrine minority rights in their constitutional and political institutions.

The Swiss state protects minority cultures and languages, and even provides for the self-government of these communities. Nobody suggests that Switzerland is any the less democratic because of this or the fact that it operates with four official languages. If anything, this is a strength.

Our foray into ethnic-group rights is recent, and has produced debates that depart significantly from the nationalism of mid-20th century New Zealand. It began with unresolved issues from a colonial history.

Maori had no choice in their colonisation. In that process, were there rights violations and are there moral and political obligations to honour historical agreements such as the Treaty of Waitangi?

In a system that we accept is based on the legal recognition of rights, in some instances derived from historical agreements such as Magna Carta, it is hard to deny similar rights to Maori.

The challenge is to translate these rights into a contemporary environment. It is equally important to ensure that others do not feel threatened by the possibility that there might be particular rights attached to being Maori.

In that regard, we appear to have failed.

Nonetheless, the argument that our institutions are or should be culture-blind is misplaced. The reality is that New Zealand is culturally diverse and about to become more so.

If the key institutions of our society do not reflect this diversity, minorities lose their trust in the fairness of those institutions.

The key may be to re-establish trust and points of common interest to make room for some provisions that recognise cultural difference. National unity and loyalty to New Zealand do not preclude other loyalties or identities, whether religious, regional or cultural.

* Professor Paul Spoonley teaches in the college of humanities and social sciences at Massey University, Albany. He is responding to Denis Dutton's view that disaster lies ahead if the principle of one law for one people is abandoned.

Herald Feature: Sharing a Country

Related information and links