COMMENT:

There may be some confusion should future generations come to dig up a time capsule of media reports buried in March 2019.

Yes, a disturbed New Zealand man in Syria lamented that he couldn't afford a sex slave, but hopefully other events this week would reflect more favourably on New Zealand's progress towards women's equality.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias was farewelled in the Supreme Court yesterday, to be replaced next week by another woman, Dame Helen Winkelmann.

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There was a huge fuss in 1999 about the appointment of a woman when Elias was named Chief Justice by Prime Minister Jenny Shipley.

It was merely noteworthy in Winkelmann's appointment when she was recently named by the young Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Ardern focused on women's progress in a speech at Parliament to mark international women's day. She counselled against over-celebration by noting New Zealand's record on violence against women and the gender pay gap being what it is.

She talked about role models, and one of her own having been former National Waipa MP Marilyn Waring, whom she chose to feature in a school project she had been working on - a time capsule featuring someone who had made a big impact.

Waring is probably familiar to younger New Zealanders. She first made a name for herself as a 23-year-old feminist who won a conservative rural seat, then for being "exposed" by Truth as a lesbian, then for her conflicts with Muldoon over Labour's anti-nuclear legislation. She later made her name in the area of women's work and the economy.

It is extraordinary to think she was the only woman MP in the Government caucus between 1978 and 1981. She retired at the 1984 election, when another legend, Dame Annette King, was first elected at the age of 37.

Ardern launched King's biography this week at the Backbencher pub across the road from Parliament.

King , now 71, and High Commissioner to Canberra, was one of the most able MPs because of a combination of personal and political skills.

Pay parity measures have struggled for traction in furnace of adversarial politics. Illustration / Guy Body
Pay parity measures have struggled for traction in furnace of adversarial politics. Illustration / Guy Body

Her talents have been recognised across the aisle. It was National who made her a Dame and there is little doubt it would keep her in Canberra were it to lead the next Government.

While Ardern's achievement in being Prime Minister at aged 38 is remarkable, it is also unfortunate that the Government doesn't have the experience of an Annette King – or that retiring MP Ruth Dyson's experience did not warrant her being appointed back to the ministry in Ardern's first cabinet.

While Annette King was deeply tribal as a politician, it never got in the way of advancing the issues of the day.

One of the biggest gender issues of the day is pay equity (work done mainly by women being undervalued and underpaid).

The big question is what framework should be in place for further claims after the Service Workers' Union (now E Tu) case for Kristine Bartlett led to a negotiated $2 billion settlement for 55,000 care and support workers in 2017 with National.

The framework National put in place for other claims was never tested because it was dumped early in the term of the Government. The proposed replacement bill before a select committee appears to make it easier for claims to be progressed.

One of the biggest rows going on is the extent to which back-pay should be limited – under the bill, it is allowed to a maximum of six years but on a sliding scale that places greater limits on back-pay for claims that are settled soon after the law takes effect.

It is meant to be an incentive for employers to settle early rather than drag out cases with litigation at every twist and turn. But like the Brexit deal, it hated by both sides.

The back-pay provision is opposed by the Employers and Manufacturers' Association, for the potential financial stress, and it is opposed by unions for being more restrictive on pay equity than other cases at the Employment Relations Authority.

One of the catalysts for the Bartlett claim was the undercover work done by Judy McGregor (whose husband, John Harvey co-authored the Annette King book with journalist Brent Edwards) in rest homes when she was Equal Opportunities Commissioner.

Now a professor at AUT, McGregor has made one of the more substantial submissions on the Equal Pay Amendment Bill, along with former Speaker and law professor Margaret Wilson and law lecturer Pam Nuttall.

They make a strong case for greater transparency in tacking the issue of pay equity, including larger companies being required to publish their own gender pay gap data or forward to a relevant agency.

Britain requires it, as does Australia, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and Portugal.

Paula Bennett in a speech as Women's Affairs Minister in 2017 challenged private sector employers to publish their own voluntary gender pay audits. That didn't work.

Green MP Jan Logie went further and put up a private member's bill that month which would have required employers to provide greater statistical evidence on which to base pay discrimination cases – and may have led to a voluntary closing of the gap.

It would have required employers to tick a box on existing pay records to say whether an employee was male or female. There were other provisions if was believed the aggregated pay data might compromise confidentiality.

It was a simple bill, with little compliance required, and would have gone a long way to addressing a form of discrimination so ingrained that it is either not recognised or is ignored.

National opposed the Logie bill despite having clear sympathies with the intent and it was defeated 59 votes to 60. Labour did not give National much credit for the Bartlett case, and National, in Government at the time, was not going to hand Labour a victory.

Labour and the Greens ambitions on pay equity, like every other policy, is constrained these days by how far New Zealand First is prepared to go. It supported pay transparency in 2017 but it is unpredictable.

It is time for Ardern to look across the aisle for support on pay transparency measures from Bennett, Amy Adams and Judith Collins to work on some more advances in the interests of improving women's lives.

March 8, 2020 would be a good time for an announcement - next year's International Women's Day.