Danger cliff edge: Andrew Little's loose footing

Andrew Little has wandered off message a bit recently, and as parliament starts needs to give himself a stern talking to if he's serious about earning the trust of middle New Zealand

Politicians are always walking on a cliff's edge. They are one misstep away from disaster. Or at least a twisted ankle or a bit of a fright. Andrew Little in his first few months as Labour leader has seemed as sure-footed as a mountain goat, but heads into the House today needing to remember where the path is.

Little started well as Labour leader, surprising many with his steady hand and confidence. He got some cut (the crap)-through and was making a virtue out of sounding like middle, slightly conservative New Zealand. He's tried hard to be a bloke of the people. More than 20 points behind National in the polls he has his work cut out if he wants to be Prime Minister, but he was very clear about his ambition to catch National and his need to cling to the centre.

In November, he stopped Labour pursuing Maryan Street's private members bill on euthanasia, saying:

"The challenge for the next three years is for us to emphasise issues of priority to a broad cross-section of New Zealanders and I'm not sure [euthanasia] is one of them.

"For a party that's at 25 per cent in the polls, where there is a clear issue about the level of trust and confidence in us to lead and be in government, this is not a priority issue."

Just this week he was stressing the need to stick to economic matters, such as unemployment and the SkyCity deal. Priorities, priorities.

Yet at the same time he has been dancing too close to the cliff. Ignoring his own advice, he seems to be straying from the path of hip-pocket issues towards the precipice of identity politics.

It's a loose label and, in truth, identity politics matter. Some of the identity policies New Zealand has stood up for are stands we're most proud of as a nation. They have been a Labour strength in the past.

But the political reality is that the narrative of the later Clark years includes the widespread perception that Labour indulged too much in identity politics at the expense of its economic knitting. A decent chunk of voters, focused on their own wellbeing rather than broader social issues, started to think Labour wasn't talking about the issues they care about. They stopped listening and National has been very successful in painting Labour into that corner... with more than a little help from past Labour leaders and other MPs.

So Little should be kicking himself for being drawn into a debate on Maori sovereignty, just as parliament is about to start. Of course New Zealand has successfully introduced some self-governance for Maori; indeed even Dick Seddon legislated Tuhoe self-government in 1896. There are numerous precedents in the US and Canada, amongst other countries. And this is a vital debate for New Zealand to have, especially as we near the end of the Treaty settlement era and move into the living Treaty era.

Yet that is not a debate Little wants to lead. Not yet anyway. It's a tough path he has to walk, because he doesn't want to look timid or without substance. He wants to stand for something. Yet right now he must resist that temptation and choose discipline above all else. He can be brave and bold later, once he's earned that trust he was talking about last year.

Maori sovereignty issues aren't the only example of his recent loose lips, either. Look at his recent news appearances and you'll see him commenting on gay rights and republicanism. These are important issues all, but not for now. And not for Little.

That way lies the cliff and the risk of Little following his predecessors David Shearer and David Cunliffe over the edge. At this stage it's merely loose footing. But it should give Little enough of a fright to realise he needs to get back on the path and be more disciplined as the serious politics of parliament kicks off this week.