Both the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP questioned McNeil in the legislature Wednesday on the process that was used to hire Glennie Langille for the job that pays $85,000 a year.
Langille is a former Liberal party communications director, who finished third as a candidate for the party in the riding of Pictou West in October's provincial election.
Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie said the job should have been filled through a competition under the government's fair hiring policy. The protocol officer's job is not on a list of exemptions in the policy, he said.
"It lists such positions as assistant deputy minister, CEOs, executive assistants to cabinet ministers and so on," said Baillie. "It specifically does not list the protocol officer."
McNeil said the appointment is appropriate because Langille was not appointed to the civil service, adding that she was hired on a one-year contract that can be renewed annually and there is no payout at the end of the agreement.
NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald said McNeil's answers come up short.
"It sounds like some of the pathetic excuses we've heard over the years for appointments to the Senate," she told the legislature.
Outside of the house, McNeil said the position has alternated between a civil service hiring — which was the case for Langille's predecessor — and a ministerial appointment.
"It has been done in various ways," said McNeil.
When asked whether he regretted the hiring, he replied: "No, not at all."
But Baillie called the hiring "disgraceful," saying taxpayers don't care whether it was through a contract or another method.
"We should call it as it is, it's a patronage appointment and rubbing taxpayers noses in it is no step forward."
MacDonald said while there is no legal requirement for the job to go to an open competition, the conduct of politicians is being watched.
"We operate in a public arena now where there's a moral imperative and the public are fed up with these kinds of shenanigans," she said.