Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Rug godsend and Little has carpeted the diem

Fun story has gifted Labour leader chance to show lighter side.
Opposition leaders have to grab their chances and the rug art could could not have come at a better time for Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Opposition leaders have to grab their chances and the rug art could could not have come at a better time for Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Not many candidates for Prime Minister have to contend with questions about the size of their family jewels but that was the latest test faced by Labour leader Andrew Little.

The question was prompted by a piece of rug art portraying a naked Little by Whanganui artist Mark Rayner.

The proportions of the biceps and pectorals raised suspicions Little had sent Sonny Bill Williams along as his body double.

Lower down in the frame was another generously proportioned element of the anatomy. It was impossible to miss and the reason why a search on Google News for Andrew Little had coverage of this particular art work well ahead of any other story he featured in over the past week.

In the same week Labour had forced an 18-hour debate on housing after taking advantage of a procedural blunder in National's attempt to extend the Special Housing Areas legislation under urgency. Little himself had gone down to Parliament to deliver several speeches in this marathon session.

Party leaders usually reserve themselves for the big occasions - Question Time, the first speech in the General Assembly. They do not usually deliver speeches on part two clause one of housing amendment bills.

None of Little's speeches got covered in the media.

Nor was there much coverage of Little's other theme of the week - immigration - despite the flurry of stories prompted by Prime Minister John Key saying that bosses had reported local workers were drugged up and lazy so migrant workers were still needed.

The oxygen is thin in the high altitudes of the Opposition, especially with the likes of the Greens and NZ First all scrabbling for the same oxygen.

Not only that, Little was up against the soap opera of Jordan Williams' defamation case against Colin Craig. That has offered moments of sublime theatre. Williams' monotone recital of Craig's Two of Me poem, complete with reading each punctuation mark ("dot, dot, dot") was going to be difficult for anyone to beat.

There is now only about a year to go until the next election but Little need not get disheartened by the realisation he gets more attention for a naked portrait than his efforts at focusing on the Things that Matter.

Art rug by Mark Rayner of a full-frontal nude image of Andrew Little, Labout leader. Photo / Facebook
Art rug by Mark Rayner of a full-frontal nude image of Andrew Little, Labout leader. Photo / Facebook

He could cheer himself up by watching the YouTube clip of Key in September 2007 perusing the Porirua Markets without anybody appearing to realise who the strange fellow sniffing vegetables in their midst was. A little more than a year later Key and National rode into power.

Opposition leaders have to grab their chances and the rug art could could not have come at a better time for Little.

For a start, stories about his depiction in wool were preferable to the other story bubbling up about Labour: the defection of staff.

Three of the six press secretaries had either left or were scarpering for the hills and his chief of staff Matt McCarten was off to set up a Mothership in Auckland. A similar turnover has happened in the Green Party. Some MPs, such as Clayton Cosgrove and Kevin Hague, are also leaving when the chances of ministerial roles are a possibility.

Whatever their reasons for going - and there is no suggestion any are out of dissatisfaction with Little - it is not a good look for a party a year before an election.

It leaves Little without two key staff members - the chief of staff and chief press secretary. This is not necessarily fatal - as the Colin Craig case shows, it is better to happen a year out than during the campaign. But it does mean there is little room for error in selecting new staff.

It could even be a good opportunity for Little. Little's team was largely inherited from leaders who went before him.

McCarten himself was recruited by David Cunliffe. Little's only two appointments were chief press secretary Sarah Stuart, who has now left, and Martin Taylor, director of policy and research.

He now has the chance to put in place his own handpicked staff. The trouble is finding staff to handpick.

Turnover in such staff is not unique to the Opposition. Prime Minister John Key has fair churned through press secretaries over the past eight years.

The difference is National does not appear to have trouble filling its vacant slots. In recent weeks, Key, Hekia Parata and Gerry Brownlee have all secured the services of new press secretaries after departures and re-assignments within the Beehive.

Little's chief press secretary role has been open since May when Sarah Stuart left after almost 18 months in the role.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

Staff recruitment is in some ways a test of confidence in a party's chances of securing the Government benches. Parliamentary staff are tied to the Parliamentary term (and the tenure of leaders in the case of a leader's office). It can be hard to persuade people to leave good jobs when there is a risk of being left without a job a year later if their party does not win the election.

The departures and apparent difficulty attracting good replacements all appear to run counter to Labour and the Greens' self-proclaimed confidence they are within coo-ee of knocking the bastard off after eight years in Opposition.

Meanwhile the bastard was in Laos rubbing shoulders with US President Barack Obama and Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev while Little was wondering who was left to send out his press releases.

So the chance for a week of school yard jokes to distract from his office woes was a bit of a blessing for Little.

That artwork may even be more politically valuable for Little than may appear at first blush (and blush he should).

It also gave Little the chance to show he did not take himself too seriously - an essential political attribute and one Key has turned into an art form.

Nor did Little waste the opportunity. He rolled out some puns, some of which were even funny.

He quipped about the portrait adding "new meaning to the term 'member of Parliament'."

He joked about becoming someone's doormat.

Unlike the portrait of Little, a Rayner rug portrait of Key earlier in the year mercifully cut off at the hip.

Thankfully, Little showed he may have learned something from Key's tendency to overshare as well as to laugh at himself. Little refused to confirm or deny if certain parts of the depicted anatomy reflected reality. Instead he issued a rather coy admission that the pecs and biceps were larger than life "but apart from that, you know". No, we don't and would like to keep it that way.

- NZ Herald

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