The debate about whether Bill English calls himself a feminist or not looks even more ridiculous this week than it did when he was sworn in as Prime Minister.

Certainly the 55,000 rest home workers and other carers who will receive an extra $2.048 billion over five years in the Government's first pay equity settlement won't give a fig what label is attached to him.

Action counts more than words, promises, platitudes or labels.

The extra money in their pay packets, about $100 a week for most full-timers, will transform the lives of these workers who have established that they were low paid because they were women.


It is transforming National's traditional image as well.

The settlement is the most recent in a series of measures and policy evolution that is seriously challenging Labour's branding. Yes Labour is still the party that "cares". But National is the party that "does".

At the heart of the decision-making over the pay equity decision was a quartet Cabinet "wets" who have been personally connected to the health sector or aged care and have strong social justice credentials.

Both of Bill English's parents ended up in rest homes. His mother was a formidable community activist who helped to form the Farm Works' Association. Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett raised a daughter as a sole parent and worked in a rest home as nurse aid and dishwasher. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman was raised by his widowed mother. He worked as a GP in Otara and regularly attended patients in rest homes and Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse's mother was a nurse in Dunedin.

In Paula Bennett, National has its most senior and vocal women's affairs minister ever, even though her involvement in pay equity has been as State Services Minister.

In her bid to close the stubborn 12 per cent pay gap, last month she challenged private sector companies to conduct gender pay audits (it already happens in the public sector) and to publish the results.

Next month, Bennett will have the chance to make that a reality when deciding whether to throw the Government's weight behind Jan Logie's private member's bill. It requires such audit information to be collected by Government officials and made available to employees unless privacy would be compromised by doing so.

The jolt that such a reporting requirement would give employers would probably do more to address subconscious gender discrimination in the workplace than almost anything else that has been tried.

As Bennett says, most employers when making pay and promotion decisions are not deliberately discriminating.

The focus given to social issues under English and Bennett will change the dynamics of the election.

About this time last election, Labour and New Zealand First were wheeling out their attack themes against National, accusing it of crony capitalism and governing for its wealthy mates in the wake of asset sales and the Sky City convention centre deal.

It will be harder to sustain that attack line his time. Since the last election, English has championed his "social investment" approach which has focused an enormous amount of Government resource and effort on reducing social ills that ruin lives and cost millions - Amy Adams has just announced a standalone Social Investment Agency to develop it further.

English also stumped up $790 million for a hardship package in the 2015 Budget which increased welfare payments by $25 a week for families; $347 million extra in 2016 for child care and protection in Oranga Tamariki, and a $354 million package five months ago for emergency housing, and now the pay equity settlement.

Labour will still have several potent attack themes - immigration and housing - but failure to try to address social issues wont get traction.

Labour leader Andrew Little condemned the Government this week for having been "dragged kicking and screaming" to the negotiating table over pay equity, but that's not the reality in this case.

It is true that in 1991 and in 2008 National Governments dismantled pay equity laws put in place by previous Labour Governments. But in those 15 years of Government by Labour, it was not a priority either and no successful pay equity case was concluded.

The Kristine Bartlett case galvanised all sides after it was lodged in 2012. The employers appealed the right to even make a claim under the Equal Pay Act all the way to the Supreme Court.

But once it became obvious that a settlement with the Government best course of action, it took 18 months for a complex pay equity negotiation involving 1100 employers subsidised by the Government and 55,000 workers represented by three unions to reach a $2 billion settlement to be paid over five years. Not bad going for all concerned.

And not bad going for an interlocutory judgment that affirmed the right to take the claim - a claim that the employers initially tried to have struck out as frivolous.

Like the Treaty of Waitangi settlements, the amount agreed to be paid goes nowhere the actual losses suffered. But a structure has been created to deal with grievances.

A proposed framework to hear future claims was drawn up last year by a working group of union, employer and Government representatives.

They could not agree on what restrictions, if any, should be placed on claimants' ability to choose the male-dominated occupations to which they could properly compare themselves.

The Government wants them first to look at comparators within their own business or a similar business or industry and only look outside those if no appropriate comparator can be found.

Kristine Bartlett's employers wanted rest home workers compared to rest home gardeners. The unions argued that was unfair given that a low paid women-dominated sector would inherently suppress the wages of others in the industry as well.

Business New Zealand sounds amenable to changes in the proposed process.

While the unions are complaining loudly, and reasonably, about possible restrictions, they are quietly delighted about the fact that proposed framework allows for the arbitration in pay equity disputes.

If nothing else, the prospect of a court making the decision should force employers to give a liberal interpretation to what an "appropriate" comparator would be.

Restrictions may slow down pay equity claims and give more power to the courts to influence the process and outcome - but it wont stop them.

They are here to stay.