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News Brief: Australia Fires, Benjamin Netanyahu, Statehouse Legislation


How much worse are Australia's bushfires than in the past? And what's that country want to do about it?


These are really important questions. Eight people have died in southeastern Australia since Monday. This is one of the worst fire seasons in the country's history. About 12 million acres have burned so far. A fire official in New South Wales named Shane Fitzsimmons talked to Australia's Channel 9. Here he is.


SHANE FITZSIMMONS: Unfortunately, the weather conditions - the weather forecast is shaping up for a worsening of the weather conditions than what we saw only two days ago.

INSKEEP: Reporter Matthew Bungard of The Sydney Morning Herald has been covering all of this and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MATT BUNGARD: Hi, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: We've been looking at some of the images of Australia at npr.org, and it's astonishing. There is this photograph by Getty Images of two firefighters, and they're moving through a shower of flying embers blown by the wind. It looks like a rainstorm, except it's little bit of burning material. What is it like in the areas that are being struck by fire?

BUNGARD: Well, in a lot of places, it's really just nothing. Like, if you - people have been going back to the towns that they've - you know, a day before had been, you know, rich and vibrant and filled with things that they'd known their entire lives, and there's just nothing there. I mean, these fires, especially on the South Coast in the last week, have ripped through entire towns and left them with nothing. I was speaking to someone yesterday who said that in some of these towns, they've lost, you know, 80% of the structures.

INSKEEP: Well, that is useful to know because some of the other photographs that I was looking at at npr.org are of what appear to be the remnants of towns - just melted metal, brick walls of otherwise blackened buildings. And that's not a distortion, you're telling me. If we went outside the frame, we'd see even more destruction.

BUNGARD: Yeah. So this is the thing that, perhaps, when you're - like, when you're just seeing photos from the other side of the world, you might think that, you know, you're getting the worst of it when you see, like, an image with a red sky or a dead animal or something like that. But this is - that's really commonplace. I mean, there were towns that were pitch black at midday on the other day, like, because there was just so much smoke in the air that they couldn't see the sun. So - and there were other places where it was bright red, so - because of the flames.

So a lot of people who have been around, you know, the journalism game far longer than I have have said that they've never seen anything like this in a previous bushfire season. And we've had some really bad bushfire seasons in the past.

INSKEEP: And I feel obliged to mention that when you say statewide, that is the scale of a fairly large country because Australia is so large. We're talking about enormous areas that are affected here.

BUNGARD: Yeah. I mean, to put that in perspective, I mean, you might have seen a couple of maps doing the rounds on Twitter in the last couple of days. But basically, area the size of some European countries is burning right now. I mean, I saw a couple maps. It was like half of the United Kingdom or the entirety of Belgium or - just to put in perspective for people who don't quite realize how big Australia is, just how much land is burning right now. It's - I'm not sure what it is in acres, but it's well over 4 million hectares now. So, yeah, it is just such a massive, massive area that is burning and continues to burn.

INSKEEP: And what's it like as this fire season goes on and on and on? Does it feel different many weeks in than it might have felt a week in, for example?

BUNGARD: Probably the most crazy thing about it is that - you mentioned that the fire season goes on and on, but in most years when there are large bushfires, we wouldn't have even had the fire season start yet. So usually, the worst of it happens towards the middle of January and into February. That's when we see the worst of it in most years.

The fact that we had bushfires in, you know, early November in parts of the state is crazy. And the fact that they've mostly continued on through all of November and December is unbelievable. We're going to - we're looking at, you know, potentially having a fire season that's four to five months. That's nearly half a year of bushfire season, which is absurd.

INSKEEP: And amid all of this, there was an editorial in your paper, The Sydney Morning Herald. And the headline was "Bushfire Tragedy Shows Need For Climate Leadership." How much is the awareness of climate change part of the conversation that people are having in Australia right now?

BUNGARD: It's been an issue that's been, in a lot of people's eyes, neglected for a very long time. Particularly, an image that keeps resurfacing lately is a photo from Parliament a couple of years ago when the current prime minister, Scott Morrison, brandished a lump of coal in Parliament, insisting that it wouldn't hurt anybody.

And basically, in the last couple of weeks especially, these fires have prompted a lot of people that in the past have criticized climate change protests to actually admit that perhaps something is happening and that we need to act faster than what we're doing, and we need to admit that this is a real problem. So as - there is a little bit of people starting to come around, finally, to the viewpoint that this is not normal. And if you speak to any firefighter or any person who's dealt with bushfire seasons in the past, they'll say this is not normal.

INSKEEP: Matthew Bungard of The Sydney Morning Herald. Thank you so much.

BUNGARD: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: Israel's prime minister wants to stay in his country's government and out of its courts.

KING: Right. Benjamin Netanyahu said this in a speech on TV. He's asking Israel's parliament, the Knesset, to grant him immunity from prosecution. He's been indicted on corruption charges. And he's getting ready for an election campaign that will be Israel's third in a year.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin has been covering all of this and is on the line from Jerusalem. Daniel, how you doing?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I'm doing well. Thanks.

INSKEEP: Can lawmakers really protect Netanyahu from a trial?

ESTRIN: Well, they can. Netanyahu technically has a right to ask parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution. Now, let's just remember he's facing bribery charges, other corruption charges. He's accused of using the power of his office to help media executives get richer and, in exchange, getting expensive gifts and positive press.

Netanyahu has long said that this indictment is a deep state plot to get him out of office. And so what he needs to do now is convince parliament that the charges against him are politically motivated and that a trial would be against the public interest.

INSKEEP: Now, I guess we should note that in the United States, there are some limits to the prosecution of public officials. You can't arrest a member of Congress while Congress is in session, for example, although you can put the person on trial. It's very hard to indict a sitting president because of some legal opinions that the Justice Department has had. So there are some limits.

But is it customary - would it be normal and within the rules in Israel to say the prime minister can be immune from prosecution at all?

ESTRIN: Yes, it is. I mean, technically, he's not supposed - he doesn't need to resign if he faces indictment. He can continue to serve. And he has this right to ask parliament to hold a vote and to grant him immunity if he can prove that the charges are politically motivated. And that's what he's trying to say. And he also has another ask to the Israeli public. Let's take a listen to what he said on TV.



ESTRIN: He says he wants to seek immunity because he wants to continue to lead Israel for many more years to achieve historic accomplishments. And one of those, he said, was to get a green light from the U.S. on a controversial move, which would be to annex lands in the occupied West Bank.

INSKEEP: OK. So he's saying, get this prosecution out of the way, and I'm going to give you things that you really like. What are Israelis saying about this?

ESTRIN: Israelis are divided on this, Steve. I mean, a recent poll suggested that about half of Israelis oppose Netanyahu getting immunity. And that poll also found that about a third of right-wing voters oppose it, too. And they're usually Netanyahu's base. And even today, one columnist who has been sympathetic to Netanyahu had a column. He said Netanyahu's immunity request is kosher, but it stinks.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I appreciate the phrasing there. Daniel, thank you very much. Really appreciate it.

ESTRIN: Sure thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request to Israel's Knesset for immunity from prosecution.


INSKEEP: All right. In this country, what might state legislatures accomplish in 2020?

KING: Obviously, the atmosphere in Washington is deeply partisan. But on the state level, politics are sometimes different. In many states, one party has almost all the power, and that means they can get more done.

INSKEEP: Reid Wilson follows this. He's a reporter for The Hill newspaper. He's in our studios. Good morning.

REID WILSON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. What's a state you would look at first?

WILSON: Well, among the 50 equals, California tends to be king. And what has happened in recent years is that something will come out of California's state Legislature in Sacramento, and then a number of other states across the country will duplicate that.

What we're going to see this year is a move in a lot of states to allow NCAA athletes to be paid, for example, for the use of their likeness and image - something that passed in California last year and has already been introduced on a bipartisan basis in states like Minnesota and New York and Florida. And I expect there will be 20 more by the time everybody comes into session.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that California is one of those states where the governor and both houses of the Legislature are all in the hands of one party, which means they can get done what they want to get done.

WILSON: That's right. And across the country, 49 states are completely controlled at the legislative level by one party, which means that they can drive some form of agenda. And that's what we see a lot across the country is that these states are the experimental laboratories of democracy, as Louis Brandeis called them famously. And that means that the state-level legislative accomplishments tend to drive what happens in Washington.

You know, back in the 1990s, it was welfare reform that came out of the states and to the federal government. In the 2000s, it was health care reform that came from a state like Massachusetts and became the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act. And then most recently, even criminal justice reform started at the state level and was really the only thing that Congress got done on a bipartisan basis last year.

INSKEEP: Well, Virginia just became one of those states where one party has all the power. Democrats have the Legislature and the governor's chair. I was talking to voters the other day in Virginia, and there was a lot of discussion of gun control. What's going on there?

WILSON: That was a key issue in the elections that - in which voters handed control to Democrats for the first time in a generation. We're going to see a raft of gun control legislation coming out after this mass shooting that happened in Virginia Beach last year.

Virginia's also going to try to do a lot of things that other democratic states did in the last - in the past few years - updating voting reforms, updating things like - they're going to try to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would make it the 38th state to do so. So Virginia - because of those elections in which Democrats took control, Virginia is going in a radically different direction this year.

INSKEEP: Are there some red states where Republicans who have all the power have a big agenda?

WILSON: What we're seeing in a lot of red states is a continuation of a push that's happened for a few years now to try to get abortion-related legislation into the courts. So a state like Georgia or Iowa or Alabama have passed, in recent years, measures to restrict the access to abortions. And their whole goal there is to get sued so that those laws will go to the courts and eventually work their way up to the Supreme Court where the pro-life community believes they now have a 5-4 majority.

INSKEEP: Now, there are some states where the governor is of one party, the legislature or part of the legislature is of the other party. Is there any place where the parties have that kind of divided government, but they just seem a little more pragmatic, a little more bipartisan than on the national level?

WILSON: In a lot of states, the partisanship that exists in Washington, D.C., does not exist at the statewide level. And in talking to legislators over the last few years - or last few months, they have talked about their efforts to really maintain that kind of order and decorum that doesn't exist here in Washington, D.C. They want to keep those lines of communication open.

I was speaking to the speaker of the Nevada Assembly a few years ago. And he told me that he'd actually bought an olive tree to put on his desk to convey to the Republicans, who were in the minority, that he was there to give an olive branch.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK.

WILSON: Unfortunately and possibly as an appropriate capstone, the olive tree died.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm so sorry. Well, you keep cutting off the branches to give them away...

WILSON: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...And eventually the tree just can't take it anymore. Reid Wilson, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.

WILSON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He covers state legislatures for The Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.