Newbie leader takes lesson from his rival by supporting national security rather than indulging in rhetoric.

Andrew Little took a big step forward towards the ultimate prize - the prime ministership - with his decision to support John Key's government to get the Countering Terrorist Fighters legislation across the line.

The Little stratagem could have been taken straight from the John Key playbook - a factor that is well recognised by insightful observers on both sides of politics.

It was a tough call to support the legislation - and not to fall prey to continuing petty oppositional politics that can so easily consume a party which has just come out of an election campaign. Particularly when Little is just weeks into his leadership of the Labour Party.

And even more so as the legislation gives the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) greater powers of surveillance and the Minister of Internal Affairs more power to suspend and cancel passports.

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It would have been a temptation to ramp up the rhetoric around the intrusion of privacy.

But by giving his caucus's support to the National-led Government on a major national security matter, Little has shown he is prepared to position Labour as the "Government-in-waiting" which will ensure the protection of its own citizens when it next gets to occupy the Beehive.

Little did have to face down some internal opposition.

Key's own stance is that the rise of Isis - the Islamic State group - in the Middle East has increased the risk of a domestic attack here.

But Labour had justifiable concerns over the speed with which the legislation was being advanced; the fact that it allowed the SIS to spy on citizens (and others) for 24 hours without a warrant and the ability to cancel passports for three years.

But the task was made easier by the strong advocacy of former Labour leaders Phil Goff and David Shearer within caucus.

As former Opposition leaders Goff and Shearer have been entrusted by the Government with classified intelligence relating to New Zealand's security threats. Neither MP could divulge the content of the intelligence briefings. But it is fair to say they have strong knowledge of the risks New Zealand does face from local extremists who are prepared to take up the cudgels on behalf of foreign interests and terrorists.

Their briefings were along the lines of "I can't give you the detail - but there are strong reasons why we should support the legislation - trust me".

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Their individual stature is enhanced as Goff did hold the Foreign Affairs and Defence portfolios while in Helen Clark's Cabinet. He was a strong player working alongside Clark when she took the first steps towards normalising New Zealand's relationship with the United States and has been "in the loop" on international security issues while in Cabinet.

Goff is also talked about as a potential political appointee to the United States ambassadorship when Labour next resumes Government.

Shearer's own political history is more recent.

But he has worked in some Middle East hotspots - like Iraq - while on the United Nations payroll and is a realist.

Paula Oliver, the Prime Minister's deputy chief of staff, is credited with running the cross-party strategy. Oliver is increasingly taking a higher profile within the PM's Office. She is said - including by foreign affairs - to have played a strong part in devising the well-crafted speech that Key recently gave to the Institute of International Affairs.

A former Herald political journalist, Oliver joined Key's press office after he became PM and subsequently migrated to a political advisory role.

The comparisons with the John Key playbook are apposite.

As a newbie Opposition leader Key decided that National should support the anti-nuclear legislation.

As he said at the time, "I think New Zealanders have a long-held view that this is important to our nation building. I think they see it as New Zealand standing up strongly for something it believes in."

He made it clear he would work with Helen Clark to foster and advance New Zealand's international interests and to maintain consistency between the two parties on foreign affairs. "As a general rule it's in the best interests of New Zealanders that both major political parties approach it on a bipartisan basis."

Little's support does come with a few caveats - but they are minor. The most important aspect is that the Labour leader has shown he is prepared to take a seat at the grown-ups' table.