Pierre Poilievre, the minister for democratic reform, says he was not referring to Elections Canada head Marc Mayrand when he said "the referee shouldn't be wearing a team jersey" on the day he introduced the proposed fair elections act.
Poilievre said he meant that future election commissioners — who will investigate election infractions — will be separate from Elections Canada as a provision of the new bill.
A future commissioner won't be part of the Elections Canada "team," he said. Poilievre denied he meant Mayrand has shown some kind of bias in his decisions.
Poilievre told host Evan Solomon on CBC News Network's Power & Politics that Mayrand had it wrong when he told reporters "the referee is no longer on the ice" regarding the government's election reform bill.
Mayrand had also told Solomon in an earlier interview on CBC Radio's The House that the new bill is an affront to democracy. "My reading of the act is that I can no longer speak about democracy in this country," he said.
However, Poilievre told Solomon that Mayrand can speak "generally" about democracy to the public and Parliament.
But he reiterated that Elections Canada's ad campaigns must be restricted to the "basics" of voting, such as when and where to vote, and what kind of voter ID is needed. He confirmed Mayrand will not be able to advertise about programs that encourage students to vote.
Elections commissioner's independence
Poilievre also addressed a question about the bill's transfer of the elections commissioner's position out of the Elections Canada office and into the director of public prosecution's office (DPP).
Fears have been expressed the move means the commissioner will be less independent, and will answer to government rather than to Parliament. Poilievre pointed out the DPP is appointed on the recommendation of an independent panel whose members are appointed by all political parties as well as the law society.
He added the act that created the DPP office explicitly states the position is to be independent of the attorney general of Canada.
Mayrand had also told Solomon he believes surveys and research done by his office would be forbidden under the new bill.
But Poilievre said Mayrand will still be able to commission reports, such as a recent one that pointed out numerous errors in the voter vouching system, and communicate the results to the public.
If Mayrand is worried he has been muzzled by the bill, Poilievre said, then the wording of the bill can occur at committee.
Election reform bill being fast-tracked
The government's election reform bill, the proposed fair elections act, faced a vote tonight in the House of Commons and passed 152-128.
Debate on the bill had been cut short by the government, which used time allocation to ensure its quick passage.
The bill will proceed next to a parliamentary committee where it will be debated and possibly amended.
In the last day of Commons debate on Monday afternoon, the NDP pleaded with the government to allow a two-month delay so that the bill could be debated by citizens in a cross-country forum.
The bill hives off the investigative arm of Elections Canada to another department, increases fines and donation limits and curtails the powers of the head of the election agency.
The government's haste in pushing the bill though the parliamentary process is somewhat surprising. The bill has been in the works since it was first promised almost two years ago in March 2012, as a response to the robocalls scandal.
It was scheduled to be tabled in April of last year, and even a media briefing had been announced. But the bill was scuttled at the last minute after complaints from Conservative MPs. It was redrafted and finally introduced last Tuesday.
Bill must be passed by committee and the Senate
At committee, the bill will now be scrutinized clause by clause, and witnesses can be called to comment on its contents. It will then go back to the House for a third vote, and finally it will have to pass muster with the Conservative-dominated Senate.
Mayrand gave notice to Parliament that any new electoral law should be in place by the spring of 2014, at the latest, which may explain the haste.
Mayrand said the time is needed to change software and documentation and to train staff for new procedures.
Elections Canada will have to republish campaign donation limits and new rules about political loans, train poll workers about the provision in the bill that bans the practice of vouching, and prepare beefed-up advertising about the voting process, as the bill would require.
Although the next fixed election date isn't scheduled until October 2015, the elections agency wants to be fully prepared by the spring of that year.