‘Chill out’: Albanese asked about calling Indian PM ‘the boss’ as storm brews over alleged assassination

<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/EPA</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/EPA

Anthony Albanese has told a reporter to “chill out” when asked whether he regretted calling Narendra Modi “the boss” earlier this year, amid allegations the Indian government may be linked to an assassination in Canada.

But in a formal statement issued on Tuesday, the Australian government said it was “deeply concerned” by the claims of assassination and declared that “all countries should respect sovereignty and the rule of law”.

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, triggered a diplomatic storm on Monday by saying there was “credible evidence” India was responsible for the alleged assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Canadian Sikh leader, in June.

Trudeau told the House of Commons that he had raised the issue “in no uncertain terms” with Modi, India’s prime minister, at the G20 summit in New Delhi this month. Canada also expelled an Indian diplomat in protest.

Related: ‘Credible evidence’ India behind alleged assassination of Sikh leader, says Trudeau

India’s ministry of external affairs later labelled the claims as “absurd”. The ministry confirmed that Trudeau had raised the issue with Modi but said the claims were “completely rejected”.

While rejecting the allegations, the ministry said it urged the Canadian government to “take prompt and effective legal action against all anti-India elements operating from their soil”.

Albanese was reluctant to be drawn on the issue at a media conference in Melbourne on Tuesday.

“I don’t talk about Five Eyes intelligence at a press conference, funnily enough, that’s why it’s called intelligence, because we don’t speculate on what the intelligence is,” the Australian prime minister said.

Australia and Canada are both members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement, along with the US, the UK and New Zealand.

The Australian government has sought to deepen trade and security ties with India over the past few years against the backdrop of tensions with China. It has been reluctant to criticise India’s human rights record in public.

Related: Australia’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach to human rights in India has failed, advocates say

Albanese welcomed Modi to a cheering audience of more than 20,000 people at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney’s west in May.

“I said to my friend the prime minister before, the last time I saw someone on the stage here was Bruce Springsteen, and he didn’t get the welcome that prime minister Modi has got,” Albanese told the crowd at the time. “Prime minister Modi is the boss!”

The US singer Springsteen is nicknamed “the boss”.

On Tuesday a journalist asked Albanese about the Canadian assassination allegations, and whether he had raised such concerns personally with Modi at the G20 and whether he now regretted calling him “the boss”.

“Seriously, you should chill out a bit,” Albanese replied.

“You know, we’re at a venue where Bruce Springsteen played the last time I was there and I made the point that the reception he got from the community, which was a very broad-based community … from the Indian diaspora, welcomed him very strongly. It’s as simple as that.

Related: Narendra Modi’s rock-star welcome to Sydney is part concert, part political rally and all about soft power

“So, I welcomed prime minister Modi to Australia, as I welcome other guests to Australia as well.”

Albanese said India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines were “all important relationships” for Australia.

Wong says Australia ‘deeply concerned’ about assassination claims

The Australian government’s formal statement about the assassination claims was more direct.

A spokesperson for the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said Australia was “closely engaged with partners” regarding the developments and had “conveyed our concerns at senior levels to India”.

“Australia is deeply concerned by these allegations and notes ongoing investigations into this matter,” the spokesperson said in the statement.

“Australia believes all countries should respect sovereignty and the rule of law.”

Wong’s spokesperson said the reports would be “particularly concerning to some Australian communities” and she stressed the importance of free speech.

“The Indian diaspora are valued and important contributors to our vibrant and resilient multicultural society, where all Australians can peacefully and safely express their views,” the spokesperson said.

Albanese and Modi in front of the Sydney Opera House on 24 May.
Albanese and Modi in front of the Sydney Opera House on 24 May. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Modi and Albanese held a formal meeting in Sydney the day after the stadium event.

At the time, Modi said Albanese had assured him authorities would take “strict actions” against anyone attacking Hindu temples in Australia.

The Indian prime minister said the leaders had once again “discussed the issue of attacks on temples in Australia and activities of separatist elements”.

Related: Albanese’s storytelling on the Australia-India relationship is not quite the whole tale | Daniel Flitton

Modi and Albanese did not elaborate on the issue at their joint press event on 24 May, because no questions from journalists were allowed.

But Guardian Australia understands Albanese indicated he was deeply disappointed by vandalism at temples and that police and security agencies were taking action over such incidents.

At the same time, the Australian government indicated that it respected the right of individuals to engage in peaceful protest.