Ask not for whom the bell tolls or as Labour would have it, ask not at all.

As British Prime Minister Theresa May negotiates the minefields of Brexit, the biggest problem facing the Government in New Zealand was the Opposition putting in too many questions to ministers.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised this after some ministers had to go back and correct their answers to those questions – notably NZ First's Shane Jones, whose office had misplaced 61 meetings in its answer to a query about the people he had met with.


Ardern's defence for such lapses was that the system was creaking under the pressure of the curiosity of National MPs.

In the past year, National's 56 (now 55) MPs have asked 42,221 written questions of ministers.

That was almost the same as the 42,411 the 57-strong Opposition asked of National over the whole three-year term from 2014 to 2017.

On this evidence, National stood accused of trying to obstruct the business of government with its pesky questions.

This Questions at dawn duel transpired over the two weeks of recess, when MPs are out of Parliament and instead toiling away in their electorates (and baking Christmas cakes to sell off for charity, in Gerry Brownlee's case).

The political news void in recess weeks is something any wise government will try to fill, lest it be filled for them.

Labour made some effort – there was Justice Minister Andrew Little's Pike River announcement in week one and Ardern and Health Minister David Clark announced funding to fix the issues at Middlemore Hospital in week two.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones continued sprinkling cash around the regions and Phil Twyford announced a KiwiBuild project in New Plymouth, which probably had not known it had a housing crisis until KiwiBuild turned up.


Then Education Minister Chris Hipkins took a turn, releasing a seven-month update on the numbers of students who had taken up the fees-free tertiary education offer so far.

That proved something of an own goal, given it showed the numbers taking up tertiary education had actually dropped rather than risen.

It was not enough to swamp the mischief from National.

It used the lull to pump out the results of the answers of some of those questions.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

So we had the story about Jones' 61 missing questions and Labour's pledge to recruit 1800 more police officers being behind schedule – stretching the timeframe for delivery out from three years to five.

National was also accused of using the written questions system as a fishing expedition.

Fishing and watching test cricket are similar pursuits. Both involve lengthy periods of simply sitting and waiting. Then comes one moment of frenzied action, a fish, a six or a wicket, and the waiting starts again.

The adrenaline rush of that one moment is enough to keep people hooked through the boring bits.

So it is for Opposition MPs asking questions. There are days and weeks of being fobbed off and waiting and answers that say nothing followed by that one Eureka moment which makes it all worth it.

The fish National have hooked so far have included strange meetings between Clare Curran and Carol Hirschfeld – which remain unexplained.

They discovered Iain Lees-Galloway took less than an hour to make the controversial immigration decision on Czech drug smuggler Karel Sroubek.

Judith Collins flushed out Phil Twyford's use of a cellphone on a plane through the process.

There is a constant trickle of revelations of budget blowouts in the cost of the summits, roadshows and working groups the Government is holding.

KiwiBuild has proved another goldmine, including the low numbers who have pre-qualified to buy homes.

Labour should not be surprised National keeps casting those hooks. Nor should they be surprised by the volume.

Ardern has often described her Government as the first "pure MMP" Government – whatever that means.

Any government elected under MMP is a "pure" MMP Government.

Presumably she means it is the first time the smaller of the two big parties has headed it, but quite why that makes it more pure than any other is unclear.

The byproduct of that is that it has landed her with a "pure" MMP Opposition – a massive one formed predominantly of one party rather than the three smaller parties National had faced during its nine years in Government.

There are 55 National MPs twiddling their thumbs with little to do but come up with questions for the Government.

National is also determined to look busy. A lazy Opposition does not look ready to govern.

National is particularly keen to look busy as a contrast against its claim the Government is not busy and that despite all its talk about big reforms, it is yet to actually do much.

It can be hard to look busy in Opposition, not least because there is little attention paid to what you are doing.

That is why Bridges is putting on a show of being unrepentant about his travel expenses – they act as a reminder that he has been travelling about.

The next batch is expected next week and Bridges' are expected to be lower than his $180,000 bill in the last quarter, but still high.

National also warned early on that they did not intend to be a passive Opposition.

That type of talk continues.

This week Bridges sent an email to National's database to promote his "Have Your Say" campaign for seniors. At the end was a PS asking for donations for a "fighting fund".

It began: "Over the next two years we are going to throw everything we have at this Government."

Those written questions are the equivalent of rotten eggs.

The tsunami of questions has at least acted as a job creation scheme.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford said the KiwiBuild Unit had to employ someone whose fulltime job was answering the questions of Opposition MPs.

He moaned that the volume and "trivial" nature of the questions was clearly an attempt to tie up Government resources.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway had also tried to hire someone new, but the bid was rejected and instead had to restructure his office to free someone up.

It is fair to say the general public probably don't give two hoots how many questions Opposition parties have or what ministers have to do to answer them.

But they do care about some of the answers.

So as former PM Helen Clark famously said to John Key moaning about Labour's attacks on him: diddums.