The introduction of nationally consistent Work Heath and Safety (WH&S) laws is based on the principle that Australian workers are entitled to the same health and safety standards, regardless of where they live and whether they are volunteers or paid employees.

All municipalities, states, territories and the Commonwealth are now required to comply with 'harmonised' WH&S legislation that was endorsed at the end of 2009.

This edition of Local Government Focus examines some aspects of the legislation, and the challenges and opportunities it raises for Local Government. Legislative change invariably brings political debate and unintended consequences, and we also look at these.

A contentious side to the new laws is the possible impact on Australia's 6.4 million volunteers, many of whom work in the Local Government sector in organisations such as Meals on Wheels. The front page of LG Focus examines this issue.

While the new laws are intended to give volunteers a consistent high level of protection, the Federal Opposition claims that bureaucratic red tape and higher insurance premiums will discourage volunteers from continuing their valuable work, and limit new volunteer numbers into the future.

These claims have been refuted by the Federal Government and by Volunteering Australia, the peak body for volunteers.

Given the importance of volunteers to Local Government, it is critical that Councils are mindful of the effects on volunteers when they implement the new laws.

A further challenge for Local Government is enacting new WH&S laws with minimum impact on their operations. We profile Queensland's efficient and proactive response to legislative change on page 12 in Future Directions of this issue.

The Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) has expanded its centrally-managed human resources database to include new WH & S policies, procedures, templates and guidelines. This has given all Queensland Councils access to current, legally compliant documentation.

The LGAQ response demonstrates the potential advantages of centrally-managed online technology for Councils. It also shows how change can be a driver for new thinking in Local Government.