A free-for-all debate among the six Liberal leadership candidates vying to become British Columbia's next premier saw some hot exchanges over health care, dirty tricks and a controversial $6-million legal fee payout for two former government aides.

George Abbott defended his repeated and pointed criticism of fellow candidate Christy Clark during Friday's debate on radio station CKNW.

"I think it's important in a campaign like this that a debate actually break out at some point," Abbott said about his team's frequent news releases questioning Clark.

But Clark said Abbott's attacks are personal, make the entire party look bad and are "writing the NDP's script for them in the next election."

As both spoke over each another, Abbott denied he made any personal attacks but Clark pointed to the creation of a fake website associated with the Abbott campaign.

Abbott muttered in the background, "You're making that up," but Clark continued, lambasting Abbott for his suggestion that she doesn't understand rural British Columbia.

Then she added: "I didn't set up a fake website, or my campaign didn't, and instead of firing the guy that set up a fake website you sent him a plane ticket so he can come and work for you."

She was referring to a Toronto Star story this week that said Nick Kouvalis, a partner in the firm that built the fake website and served as chief of staff for Toronto's controversial mayor Rob Ford, is joining the Abbott campaign.

Many of the candidates squared off against Clark over her proposal to tie healthcare spending to nominal gross domestic product rates, her solution to reigning in ballooning healthcare expenditures.

But Abbott and Kevin Falcon, both former health ministers, said the idea is misguided.

"That that would mean finding hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts that would be very, very difficult to do," Falcon said.

But all the candidates agreed with Clark that healthcare spending threatens to gobble up a larger and larger portion of provincial revenues and the solution can't simply be to allow healthcare costs to continue to rise.

Meanwhile, the public perception is that the Liberals have cut spending on healthcare, when in fact the budget has doubled in the last 10 years, said Mike de Jong, who was attorney general before he jumped into the leadership race.

De Jong said options like more private involvement in the public healthcare system need to be considered, saying he hasn't met anyone who is worried about who owns the hospital after being provided treatment upon showing a B.C. care card.

Moira Stilwell, a doctor for 32 years, was more blunt.

She said private, for-profit facilities like two in Vancouver that charge patients for procedures are going to continue to exist.

"Averting your eyes and sticking your head in the sand is not going to change that. It's been here for at least 20 yeas and its going to grow and grow," she said, adding she's not opposed to the growth.

What government needs to do is ensure it sets standards to "make sure that the private system is there as a partner to ensure a high-quality public system."

Abbott was also part of a heated discussion with leadership hopeful de Jong on the issue of a $6-million settlement to pay the legal fees of former government aides Dave Basi and Bobby Virk.

Basi and Virk were involved in a scandal that ensnared the Liberals when the RCMP raided their legislature offices on Dec. 28, 2003, in connection with the $1-billion sale of BC Rail.

Last October, during a corruption trial that followed the raid, Basi and Virk entered surprise guilty pleas, admitting they passed along confidential information to one of the bidders vying for BC Rail.

De Jong defended the deal, saying the decision was made by the deputy finance minister.

Abbott called for a public inquiry into the payout to prevent a similar situation in the future, and de Jong said he didn't have a problem with that, although the decision also involved Crown prosecutors.

"If people doubt that and they want a third party to come along and verify that fact that's fine with me," he said.

Falcon said he agreed with the idea of an independent review of the decision to pay the legal fees of people who plead guilty.

"I know Mike was as shocked as all of us," he said of the former attorney general.

But Stilwell said the whole affair is water under the bridge and an inquiry isn't necessary.

She said the most important point is learning how large, complicated cases can be dealt with in a better way.

De Jong agreed, saying the huge cost and length of time of such proceedings is an issue that needs to be looked at.

"The courts are the third branch of government," he said, adding they should be open to cameras so people can watch proceedings.

Ed Maynes is the sixth leadership contender for the Liberals.

The party will hold its leadership convention on Feb. 26.