Conservative Leader Stephen Harper appealed for Canadians to elect him to lead a majority government, despite spending much of Tuesday night's English-language debate on the defensive over his record as prime minister.

During the two-hour debate in downtown Ottawa, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe accused Harper and the Conservative Party several times of not telling the truth to Canadians on issues like the G8/G20 summit spending controversy, corporate tax cuts and respecting the institution of Parliament.

But Harper rejected the charges and insisted his government has been a strong steward of Canada's fragile economic recovery, while his opponents were "bickering" in the House of Commons and forcing an unneeded election.

"Canada's got the strongest recovery of any country on Earth, and suddenly it's plunged into a fourth election in seven years, and Canadians don't know why," Harper said.

"I don't think this kind of political bickering, personal attacks back and forth, is frankly going to do anything for Canadians," said Harper.

But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff shot back.

"There he goes again with this word 'bickering,' " Ignatieff quipped. "This is a debate, Mr. Harper. This is a democracy. … You keep talking about Parliament as if it's this little debating society that's a pesky interference in your rule of the country. It's not."

Ignatieff also attacked Harper over the latest corporate tax cuts, saying that the Conservative leader is ignoring the needs of Canadians while corporations bring in record profits.

"Nobody can understand why that makes sense in the middle of the toughest deficit we've seen because of your waste and mismanagement," Ignatieff said.

"That's why we're having an election, because you didn't tell the truth."

But Harper defended his government's choices, saying, "We have balanced policies to move us all forward together."

'You are a man who will shut down anything you can't control. That's the core of your vision of government ... and it's hostile to the values of democracy upon which this country is based.'—Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper

The Conservative leader told Ignatieff that raising corporate tax rates would "send a negative message to investors" and hurt job creation while Canada's economy continues to recover from the global recession.

The Liberals have promised to pay for any new programs by returning the corporate tax rate to 2010 levels of 18 per cent.

The current corporate tax rate is 16.5 per cent and would drop to 15 per cent in 2012, under the Conservatives.

The debate, hosted by TVO's Steve Paikin, kicked off with a viewer's question about corporate tax cuts, which prompted Duceppe to call on Harper to release the auditor's general's report after a leaked draft alleged the Conservative government lavished millions on cabinet member Tony Clement's riding and misinformed Parliament. 

Duceppe also mocked Harper’s tightly-controlled rally appearances by congratulating the Conservative leader for "answering a question from a citizen for the first time in this campaign."

Harper insisted all money from the summits is accounted for and said the auditor general has cautioned Canadians not to draw conclusions from a draft report leaked to The Canadian Press earlier this week. Harper also said he supported the auditor general to release the final report.

Layton slams Ignatieff's support for Tories 

But Layton accused Ignatieff  of being Harper's "best friend" for supporting corporate tax cuts in previous budgets and that he couldn't be trusted on the issue.

'You're Mr. Harper's best friend, and now you're offering yourself as an alternative'—NDP Leader Jack Layton

"There you were, supporting Mr. Harper on this massive program corporate tax cuts, and suddenly you're against them," Layton said. "You're Mr. Harper's best friend, and now you're offering yourself as an alternative."

Layton and Ignatieff also sparred over the mission in Afghanistan, with Layton saying the troops should be brought home immediately.

Ignatieff responded that Canada has a responsibility to help the international mission in Afghanistan for three more years.

"We are where we are … You can’t walk away," said the Liberal leader.

Ignatieff targets Harper's 'ideology'

On a question about foreign policy, Ignatieff slammed Harper for being the first prime minister to fail to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council and shutting down some Canadian foreign aid programs over ideological reasons.

"You are a man who will shut down anything you can't control. That's the core of your vision of government ... and it's hostile to the values of democracy upon which this country is based," Ignatieff said.

'We have to get Parliament back to work, focused on the economy and passing the good measures for people that were in our budget, that we can afford without raising taxes'—Conservative Leader Stephen Harper

But Harper flatly rejected Ignatieff's claims and defended his government's foreign aid record, saying they have not reduced money to third world countries.

Ignatieff also accused Harper of prompting an election by being in contempt of Parliament  by failing to provide details to the House of Commons on a number of issues.

But Harper shot back that the election was simply a result of the three parties ganging up on the Tories to outvote them.

He said Canadians will decide whether the actions of the three parties with the contempt motion were "valid, or whether what we should have been doing is focusing on the economy."

"We have to get Parliament back to work, focused on the economy and passing the good measures for people that were in our budget, that we can afford without raising taxes," Harper said.

Coalition issue flares up

The leaders also weighed into the issue of a coalition government, with Duceppe and Layton accusing Harper of being prepared to seize power through such an agreement after coming second to Paul Martin's Liberals in 2004.

Duceppe and Layton said they got together with Harper  and drafted the letter to tell then-Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson that Harper was prepared to form a government if Martin lost the confidence of the House of Commons.

Harper has made the idea of a coalition an issue during the campaign, hitting the opposition leaders hard over what he says is a plan to form a coalition government if his party can't form a majority.

"I hope this time — and I'm being quite frank — I hope it is a majority," Harper said.

He rejected the accusation by Duceppe and Layton that he was ready to form a government in 2004, insisting that the leader of the party that wins the most seats in an election should be prime minister.

Harper also insisted he would never enter into a coalition  with a party like the Bloc committed to the breakup of Canada.

"The reason Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton are changing their stories now  is in 2008, they tried to put in power the Liberal Party, which had lost the election. That's not how democracy works," Harper said.

Although Ignatieff again rejected a coalition, Harper also claimed that Ignatieff has not ruled out forming a government with the NDP and Bloc if the Tories fail to win a majority.

Harper defends immigration record

On immigration, both Ignatieff and Layton took aim at the policies of the Conservatives. Ignatieff said his father might not have been able to enter the country under the Tories' policies, while Layton echoed that his mother-in-law may also not have been welcomed.

"How can we regard it as somehow acceptable that a family has to wait for 10 years for their mother or father to come and join them? That is just so wrong," Layton said

The New Democrat leader said he looks to the example of his wife Olivia Chow’s mother "who lives with us, lived with us for 20 years." "Thank goodness she wasn’t applying to come here now because she might never have got to see my granddaughter," Layton said. "That’s simply wrong and it’s tearing families apart."

But Harper denied that the Tories are keeping families apart and that their record on immigration is strong.

"We've been increasing categories across the board in terms of family class. There will be as many family class admitted this year as in the previous year," Harper said.

"There will always be far more people willing to come to Canada than we can admit in any year," Harper said. But he added: "Our economy needs [immigration]. Our society needs it, and we’re all better for it."

Crime, health care wrap up debate

On crime, Ignatieff criticized Harper for wanting to take a U.S. style approach to the issue by focussing on mandatory-minimum sentencing and building mega-prisons.

But Harper said a number of Tory crime initiatives have been stalled by the election and that Canadians have repeatedly said they want the punishment to fit the crime. The leaders also raised the issue of the long-gun registry, with Harper, who opposes the project, charging that the program will do nothing to prevent crime.

The leaders’ last question was on health care, with Layton saying that Canadians don’t trust Harper's party on the issue and that they only recently jumped on the bandwagon of properly funding health care. He also accused Harper of wanting to privatize health care.

Harper said that he has been working in co-operation with the provinces and had brought in wait time measures and will work to make sure health-care dollars are spent effectively.

Harper said Layton has a different definition of what he considers privatization, saying instead he won't wave his finger at provinces who want to experiment with delivery of services. Harper also insisted that all Canadians will always have access to health care.

All parties have vowed to maintain the annual six-per-cent increase after the current health-care funding accord with the provinces expires in 2014.

The debate was divided into six segments. Each segment started with a question from a Canadian voter, leading to a six-minute one-on-one debate between two leaders, before concluding with an open debate on the same topic.

The French-language debate, using the same format, is set for 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was left out of the debate after the broadcast consortium, which includes CBC and Radio-Canada, decided to invite only the leaders whose parties are represented in the House of Commons.

With files from The Canadian Press