Close Up programme threw out that question last week during a panel discussion on a confrontatio' />

Do Maori have a special place in New Zealand? TVNZ's Close Up programme threw out that question last week during a panel discussion on a confrontation it staged the previous night between Don Brash and Hone Harawira.

Good question, I thought. Simple, fair and goes to the heart of things.

At the end of the programme it had an answer from nearly 40,000 viewers. No, said 81 per cent.

On the panel, Willie Jackson looked bereft. Weary and bereft. This Pakeha felt the same. I hadn't seen the previous night's programme; Harawira must have been hopeless. Even so, 81 per cent?

You imagine, sometimes, that we are making progress on this hard road to a place we cannot define.

Everybody knows Maori have a special place in New Zealand. The most fearful denier knows it; that's why Brash's voice always goes up an octave when he denies it.

You imagine as time goes on, that most of the deniers have died or gone to Queensland, and the new society looks like John Key and Tariana Turia. Then somebody throws a switch and we are polarised again.

Extremists need each other. Harawira will invoke the name Don Brash every day in his byelection campaign, telling the voters of Te Tai Tokerau the Maori Party would "get into bed" with him. Brash will return the favour in November if Harawira survives on June 25.

Harawira gave up his seat this week because he is supremely confident he will win it back. Te Tai Tokerau voters might not be typical of Maori electorates but theirs will be the first Maori voice the country hears this year, the first reading on where Maori want to go from here.

Harawira's difference with the Maori Party is ostensibly over its dealings with National, and for the byelection he has borrowed a lot of class rhetoric from the far left. But it goes deeper than that.

Harawira by instinct and temperament doesn't want to deal with anyone. Labour knows this as well as Maori do. He is happier outside the power structure asserting absolute rights and demands at no risk of having to make decisions.

This can be an attractive position for voters, too. Before MMP, when third parties had no hope of sharing power, they sometimes attracted a "protest vote" much higher than any of them have won under proportional representation.

Historically, Maori have not been protest voters. They used to vote in droves for the Labour Party or not at all. The Maori seats regularly produced the lowest turn-outs and largest Labour majorities.

Maori still give their party votes heavily to Labour, but it is their electorate vote that represents their special place in New Zealand. Proportional representation has made their reserved seats potentially pivotal after every general election.

Until Harawira started to undermine the Maori Party, there was every chance it would be in a powerful bargaining position after this election. I can't believe he doesn't know what he is doing.

As a Pakeha, I have taken the notion of Maori sovereignty on faith. I can readily believe that people whose heritage must live in their heart and soul as strongly as mine does, need a nation they can call their own.

Every race needs one. Fortunately for immigrant societies like ours, all but Maori have come from a place where their heritage is powerful and its future assured. They have no need of a special place in the New Zealand power structure and do not seriously seek one.

Maori do. Or at least, I think they do. Harawira could prove me wrong. If he succeeds in dividing the Maori vote in November despite the golden opportunity that a united voice offers this year, I will have to reassess my whole working assumption that Maori want the tino rangatiratanga assured for them in the Treaty of Waitangi.

At a powhiri this week I heard tino rangatiratanga gently explained as control of one's life and environment. It is the autonomy every person and every distinct people need - for the security and confidence that enables them to get a stake in society, raise healthy, educated children and see them prosper.

Autonomy can be frightening. It is possible Maori have been waiting too long. Their ancestry may be so mixed that tino rangatiratanga no longer submerges ordinary socio-economic politics.

Commentator Rawiri Taonui wrote last Sunday that it was naive to think the Maori Party could accommodate all Maori views. He was glad Maori could now divide their votes among sympathetic parties across the spectrum.

I have been that naive. I have believed Maori voters sensed what a united front could do for their pride and progress. I really could be wrong.