The Senate has passed a bill that will require federal elections to be held every four years.

The proposed legislation, Bill C-16, which is scheduled to receive royal assent on Thursday, would mean Oct. 19, 2009, is the date of the next general election.

After the bill is proclaimed into law, opposition parties will still have the power to force an election earlier than the fixed date if a minority government is defeated in a confidence vote.

Once the billbecomes law,Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not be able to call an election on his own.

The Senate, dominated by the Liberals, had initially amendedaclause in the bill that allows the chief electoral officer to change the fixed date in case of a conflict with the date of a provincial or municipal election, orwith a day of "cultural or religious significance."

The Senate amendment added "referendums" to the list of reasons the election date could be changed.

But the government rejected the amendment and the Senate decided not to fight for the change.

Government House leader Peter Van Loan said he is pleased that the Senate has approved the bill,called An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act.

Under the bill, an election wouldhave to be held on the third Monday of October four years after the last federal election, with the chief electoral officer allowed some discretion in setting the date if the Monday is not suitable.

A year ago, when Rob Nicholson, then minister for democratic reform, introduced the bill, he said the proposed legislation would provide for "greater fairness" in Canada's electoral system.

Nicholson said it would also make the system more predictable.

"Fixed election dates will improve the fairness of Canada's electoral system by eliminating the ability of governing parties to manipulate the timing of elections for partisan advantage," he said in a news release on May 30, 2006.

Under current rules, the prime minister has the power to select a date for a general election and to advise the governor general to dissolve Parliament.

According to the Harper government, this power allows the governing party to set the time of the election to its own advantage.

"Establishing fixed election dates fulfils one of this government's key campaign commitments. It is an important step in improving and modernizing Canada's democratic institutions and practices,"Nicholson said in the release.

Opposition to limiting Senate terms

Van Loan said the fixed election date bill is only one of a handful of democratic reforms proposed by the Harper government.

The Senate is also considering a bill that would limit the terms of senators to eight years, but Van Loan has said the Liberals have held the billup for nearly a year.

Some Liberal senators and three provinces have said the bill to limit terms is unconstitutional.

New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, in a letter on Tuesday to the chair of the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee, said his government believes the federal government does not have the constitutional right to change Senate terms without consulting the provinces.

"While a term limit of eight years might be appropriate as part of a comprehensive reform of the Senate, a piecemeal and unilateral approach by the government of Canada to Senate reform has the potential to lead to a highly unsatisfactory and divisive result," Graham wrote.

New Brunswick joins Ontario and Quebec in arguing that the federal government needs provincial consent to limit terms of senators. But many constitutional experts disagree.

The Harper government has also proposed a bill to create a process to elect senators. Opposition partieshave already expressedsomeopposition tothat bill and Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has said he thinks it is "completely irresponsible."

With files from the Canadian Press