Australia's Marise Payne makes subtle jab at Damien O'Connor, says New Zealand can choose how to express concern

The Australian Foreign Affairs Minister appears to have made a subtle dig at New Zealand's Trade Minister in Wellington on Thursday.

Senator Marise Payne is in New Zealand for her first bilateral meeting since Aotearoa's borders reopened to Australians on Monday. It comes amid heightened trans-Tasman tensions following New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta's comments on the Five Eyes this week, which reportedly "blindsided" Australian officials.

Mahuta said she felt "uncomfortable" expanding the remit of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance to comment on issues relating to non-security matters, taking many by surprise. 

There have been calls for New Zealand to join with the Five Eyes more often in raising concerns with China over issues like interference in Hong Kong and the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. While Aotearoa has joined some statements, it has also chosen to speak independently

Mahuta's comments have been taken by some to suggest New Zealand is splitting from the Five Eyes, something Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said is incorrect.

Speaking at a press conference alongside Mahuta on Thursday, Sen Payne was questioned on whether Australia wants New Zealand to take a stronger line on China, or if Australia - as suggested by Damien O'Connor - should show respect and use more diplomacy.

Sen Payne appeared to make a subtle jab at O'Connor in her reply on Thursday. 

"One thing I have learnt in my role in this job as Australia's Foreign Minister is not to give advice to other countries," she told reporters in the Beehive. "I can talk about the Australia-China relationship and our ongoing commitments about positive engagement with China."

The question was in reference to comments by the Kiwi Trade Minister in January, when he said if Australia was to "show respect", use "more diplomacy" and "be cautious with wording", it could have a relationship with China similar to New Zealand's.

The remarks were criticised by figures on both sides of the Tasman, including Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who said: "I don't see this advice from New Zealand as particularly insightful or helpful."

O’Connor’s office declined a Newshub request for a response to Sen Payne's comments.

Following his comments in January, O'Connor phoned his Australian counterpart Dan Tehan to clarify New Zealand didn't speak for Australia on its relationship with China.

"The Australia-China relationship will always be a matter for China and Australia," he said at the time. "I’ve spoken with my Australian counterpart earlier today to reiterate, as I said in the interview, that we do not speak for Australia on this or any other matter."

Tehan later said he respected O'Connor and appreciated the phone call. 

Relations between Australia and China have soured over the last year as Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, became more outspoken on issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and supported sanctions from other Five Eyes countries against Chinese officials. China has retaliated by slapping tariffs on some Australian exports. 

Sen Payne said the relationship was "complex but comprehensive and important" and that their engagement will "continue to be clear-eyed [and] practical".

"But we also have to acknowledge that China's outlook, the nature of China's external engagement, both in our region and globally, has changed in recent years," she said. "An enduring partnership requires us to adapt to those new realities, to talk with each other. What we have offered is clarity and consistency and confidence."

The Australian minister said discussions with Mahuta were done in a positive and constructive spirit and that the two nations' areas of agreement outnumbered areas of disagreement. Mahuta also said they had been frank and open. 

In respect to the Five Eyes, Sen Payne said the partnership was a "vital strategic alliance", but that countries "will choose to address issues of concerns in whichever forum they themselves determine appropriate and consistent with their respective national interest".

"Our respect for each other - Australia, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada - is enduring and continuing and one which we, particularly in Australia value enormously." 

Mahuta also took the opportunity to clarify her comments.

"What I conveyed to journalists after the New Zealand-China speech, is that the Five Eyes arrangement is about a security and intelligence framework," she said.

"It is not necessary all the time on every issue to invoke Five Eyes as your first port of call in terms of creating a coalition of support around particular issues in the human rights space, for example."

She said New Zealand valued the Five Eyes relationship.

A statement released by the minister after the pair's meeting said "it provided an opportunity to discuss ways to continue and deepen cooperation between Australia and New Zealand to meet the shared challenges facing our region".

"Minister Payne and Minister Mahuta agreed on the value of coordinating with other like minded countries and building broad coalitions on issues of common interest."