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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, front left, responds to a question as, clockwise from left, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper listen during Thursday's English-language debate in Ottawa. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Stephen Harper brushed aside repeated criticism during Thursday's English-language debate from the four other federal party leaders that he's failed to produce an economic plan.

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Green party Leader Elizabeth May asked why the Conservatives haven't unveiled an economic platform. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Throughout the two-hour session at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, the Conservative leader was quizzed on how he proposes to address Canada's financial situation in light of the U.S. crisis.

At Harper's request, the amount of time devoted to the economy was increased to 30 minutes in both the English debate and Wednesday's French-language session.

Green Leader Elizabeth May questioned why Harper would request the broadcasting consortium staging the debates devote more time to the economy but then fail to make use of it.

"Both nights, I waited to hear what you thought you should do about the situation and wondered why you wanted the time because you offered nothing up, and tonight, you spent your time attacking the policies of others," she said.

With less than two weeks before the Oct. 14 election, NDP Leader Jack Layton agreed. "Where's the platform, under the sweater?" he asked Harper, making fun of the Conservative leader's new wardrobe of sweaters aimed at softening his image and highlighted in the party's ad campaign.

'Stéphane, you panicked,' Harper says

Instead of responding to the accusations, Harper took aim at Stéphane Dion, accusing the Liberal leader of panicking under pressure by unveiling an economic plan during the previous night's debate.

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Stephen Harper shot barbs at Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion early in the night over his new economic action proposal and the Green Shift platform. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Dion promised that within 30 days of forming a government, the Liberals would consult financial regulators, private-sector economists and provincial and territorial premiers before implementing fiscal measures to stimulate the economy.

"What leaders have to do is to have a plan and not panic. Last night, Stéphane, you panicked and announced an economic plan in the middle of a debate, and I know why you did that," the Conservative leader said.

"Look at your platform. It says you will spend billions of dollars," he added, referring to the Green Shift, which he said would raise taxes, kill jobs and drive up prices.

Dion shot back that Harper was distorting the Liberal plan.

"What we have proposed yesterday has nothing to do with doing nothing. It is to act right now," he said.

'The economy is not fine': Layton

Layton and the Bloc Québécois's Gilles Duceppe also targeted Harper for his stance that the government must stay its course on the economy and that Canada's fiscal fundamentals are strong.

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NDP Leader Jack Layton reserved some of his harshest criticism for Stéphane Dion. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

"The economy is not fine," Layton said to Harper. "Either you don't care or you are incompetent. Which is it?"

Harper responded by saying he knew about the financial crisis in August 2007 and began acting last fall on a $200-billion tax reduction package to help consumers, businesses and families.

But Layton directed his most cutting verbal jabs at Dion, questioning the party's record of abstaining from confidence votes during Harper's minority government and its accomplishments as the previous government.

"Child care promised. Never delivered. Pharmacare, never delivered," said Layton.

"I mean you've got a heck of a record there, Mr. Dion."

Recycling environmental criticism

Harper reiterated his charge that the Liberal's Green Shift would increase taxpayers' burden. He said Dion should be "honest with the people" that some environmental measures will cost the economy and said the plan includes $40 billion in carbon taxes and $26 billion in tax cuts.

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Stéphane Dion defended the Liberal's Green Shift. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

"It's not true at all," said Dion. "For every dollar that we will raise, you will have a tax cut, and these tax cuts will be on your income."

Duceppe weighed in with his request that any targets be applied to individual provinces, thereby allowing Quebec to financially benefit due to already-implemented greenhouse gas reductions.

Layton, who favours a cap-and-trade system, said it's a "figment of Mr. Harper's imagination" that emissions will fall under his plan.

Harper — who maintained a tight grin despite continued verbal assaults from the other leaders — sought to outline his government's record on other environmental fronts, saying his minority government supported the preservation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of environmentally sensitive land through the Nature Conservancy of Canada. He also said the government declared a protected marine area by Lake Superior and created a whale sanctuary by Baffin Island.

"The only word he said that's true is on national parks," retorted May.

Duceppe pounds Tories for funding cuts

Duceppe, keen to keep the Tories from gaining ground in seat-rich Quebec, painted the Conservative government's $45 million in national arts and culture funding cuts as an assault on the province's identity.

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Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe went after the Conservative government for its cuts to arts and culture funding. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

"How can you recognize the Quebec nation and then cut culture [funding]

, which is the soul of a nation?" he asked before citing the economic benefits of culture.

Duceppe was surprisingly frank during a view question  — what would your first act as prime minister be?

"I know I won't be prime minister and three of you won't be prime minister, neither," he said, gesturing at his colleagues around the table. "Some of you know it, but you won't say it."

In a rare moment of concession, Harper said he erred in calling for Canada's participation in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. At the time, he was Opposition leader.

"It was absolutely an error, it's obviously clear," said Harper, adding that the claim of weapons of mass destruction proved false.

Thursday's contest coincided with the much-anticipated showdown south of the border between U.S. vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin, the Republican governor of Alaska, and Democratic Senator Joe Biden.

"This was way better than Biden and Palin," moderator Steve Paikin of TVOntario said in concluding the program.

But a feisty May interrupted, saying, "It's our democracy. It matters more" before Paikin wrapped it up.