Come Waitangi Day and thoughts usually turn to issues of nationhood, the symbols that attach to it and the future.

Unless you are Labour leader Andrew Little. Little appeared to be taken by surprise when he was asked for his views on titular honours and the flag this week.

The week before, he had set out his determination to focus on big issues, not "small beer" issues.

He apparently felt it meant he could only ever bang on about jobs and houses. So, when he was asked for his views on the flag and titular honours he at first tried not to answer at all. Then he set out his view and immediately went into conniptions trying to distance himself from it. He did want to abolish knighthoods, those "antediluvian" things. But he hastened to add it wasn't something he was thinking about.


He hadn't thought about it before he was asked the question and he had thought about it even less since then. Quite how he had come to such a firm view on something he hadn't thought about was not explained. Similarly, he thought the flag should change but by Jove wasn't the Government irresponsible for even thinking about the referendum on it when housing was so expensive in Auckland and some people had no job?

Quite why he was so wary is unclear. The questions asked of Mr Little were stock standard and reasonable questions around Waitangi Day - questions all leaders are asked.

Very few New Zealanders vote on the basis of knighthoods. Public support for knighthoods tends to depend more on who is awarded them and their behaviour than the title's historic origins. In general, the titles are only really the focus of public opprobrium when they are given to a controversial figure, or the holder has disgraced him/herself and the issue arises of whether the knighthood should be stripped.

Little was the bravest of the four contenders during last year's leadership contest, daring to question Labour's 2014 cornerstone policies of lifting the retirement age and a capital gains tax.

He made it clear he intended to show a level of political expedience - because the reality of Labour's polling demanded it. He refused to allow an MP to pick up Maryan Street's euthanasia bill because such a polarising issue would be an unwanted distraction. That was justifiable, but Little does appear to be gun shy and overly cautious - scared to utter anything that might polarise or hinder Labour's chances of picking up votes.

So having made his "small beer" decree, he appears determined to stick to jobs and houses and other bread-and-butter issues.

One of those is, apparently, former National MP Mike Sabin. For before Little put on such a show of reticence in talking about the flag and honours, he had talked at length about when Labour told the Prime Minister's office about Sabin and whether the PM had heard about it before that point.

It came across as a rather schoolyard contest of who knew first, although it did have a more serious edge - whether the PM lied about when he first knew or was deliberately kept in the dark and if so, whether that was because it might have been inconvenient in the lead-up to what appeared to be a tight election.


As for Key, he has no such reticence talking about the flag and knighthoods. He must be slightly envious of Fiji's newly elected Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who this week announced he was changing the flag to get rid of the Union Jack. Just like that - none of this referendum nonsense and soul searching.

As for the knighthoods, now that Little has confirmed he hopes to get rid of them, look forward to a lolly scramble of new knights and dames over the next few years as Key ensures all of his "captain's picks" are titled in case Labour wins the next election. All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was Key's highest-profile captain's pick. He refused one back in 2011 because he believed he needed to prove himself as a more well-rounded character. He can, no doubt, expect another phone call come Rugby World Cup 2015.

Key is a monarchist, Little clearly is not. But when it comes to a leader who might actually start New Zealand on the path to becoming a republic, those who hoped Little might have the courage for it might think again.

New Zealand's progress toward republicanism is somewhat like the Dance of the Seven Veils. Gradually the trappings have been shed - the currency, the Privy Council, the flag (maybe), the knighthoods (for a while). The only trapping that will eventually be left is the Queen. Taking on Her Maj has been a step too far for any government so far.