McNeil said he chose Glennie Langille, a former journalist and Liberal party communications director, to take on the job ahead of other people whose names were brought forward because she is well qualified for the position.
"I believe she is a great choice," McNeil said, adding that she will be on a year-to-year contract.
"But to assure all Nova Scotians she is on a contract basis, she is not going into the civil service. That contract can be renewed or not renewed by any government going into the future."
The chief protocol officer oversees an office that co-ordinates official ceremonies and events, including visits from the Royal Family, ambassadors and heads of state. The office also manages and administers the Order of Nova Scotia Program and provides consulting services to government departments, non-government organizations and the general public.
Langille, who finished third in the riding of Pictou West when she ran in the October election, will get paid around $85,000 a year. Her appointment takes effect in mid-January.
McNeil dismissed accusations from the opposition that the appointment signals a return to old-style, patronage politics.
"I would disagree," he said. "We have not strapped any future government."
McNeil denied that he named her to the position because he felt he owed her something, saying she has demonstrated her ability to do the job.
When reached on her cellphone Tuesday, Langille said she would call back. The province's Protocol Office said later she would not be granting interviews.
The Opposition Progressive Conservatives and the NDP slammed the appointment.
"It is a disgraceful flip-flop for a government that said they would be different to make such a blatant political payback to a former candidate so quickly after the election," said Tory Leader Jamie Baillie.
Baillie said a job that should be awarded on the basis of merit was given away at a cost to taxpayers.
Acting NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald was also scathing in her assessment.
"It stinks to high heaven," said MacDonald. "This isn't about Glennie Langille, this is about the premier and history repeating itself."
MacDonald said the hiring of a protocol officer needs to be open and transparent, adding that the position should not serve as a soft landing for failed political candidates.
The opposition parties were also seething on another front Tuesday after the Liberals allowed a government backbencher to ask a question during question period.
Bill Horne, who represents Waverly-Fall River-Beaverbank, asked Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan about the state of roads in his riding.
Baillie said he was disappointed by the unilateral move after the Liberals promised more co-operation in the house.
"The whole point of question period is to allow the opposition to hold the government to account for its actions," he said. "You can't say you want to co-operate and then unilaterally impose a Liberal-friendly change."
NDP house leader Frank Corbett said both his party and the Tories were approached by the Liberals about the change and rejected it feeling it would result in "softball" questions for the government.
McNeil was unapologetic, saying it wasn't out of line to allow one in every 10 questions to come from Liberal members who have a right to be heard.
He also said other changes to improve proceedings in the legislature would come with or without the opposition on board.
"My hope is that we will move and find some unanimity around these changes, but if not, I'm prepared to make changes in this house," McNeil said.