02/24/2015 02:53 EST | Updated 04/26/2015 05:59 EDT

NDP criticizes government for travel expenses, trip to Los Angeles

REGINA - Saskatchewan's Opposition is criticizing the government for a trip to Los Angeles in the lead-up to the Academy Awards amid a provincewide clamp down on travel.

But the head of the government agency that markets Saskatchewan's arts industry said Tuesday the trip was essential.

Creative Saskatchewan CEO John-Paul Ellson said his four-day trip cost around $3,600 and included visits to fine art galleries where he hopes to see Saskatchewan talent shown.

He also said he met with officials from the Canadian consulate to discuss Canada Day festivities in the city.

"What's essential to some other ministry and what's essential to us can be two very different things if you look at the legislative mandate," he said.

NDP culture critic Cathy Sproule said the trip is upsetting, partly because the government's definition of what constitutes "essential travel" has been unclear.

"We're really having trouble understanding the government's criteria for what is essential," she said. "There's no reason Mr. Ellson couldn't have had a video conference or a telephone conference call like many other government officials are now doing when they have need to meet with other people."

The trip shows the government's misplaced priorities, she added.

Ellson said a video conference call wouldn't have been sufficient because he needed to visit certain sites such as the art galleries.

"There's also the aspect of building personal relationships. There's a new consul general in Los Angeles (whom) we had not met before."

The government imposed a freeze on non-essential travel due to slumping oil prices, which Premier Brad Wall has said will mean a budget shortfall of between $600 million and $800 million this year.

Ellson said since the government directive to cut back, Creative Saskatchewan has reduced its travel costs by more than 50 per cent for the rest of the fiscal year.

"But we have to continue to do business."

The New Democrats also criticized Ellson's presence at a reception that honoured Canadian nominees at the Oscars.

Sproule said he was attending an event for an industry that has been "wiped out" by the government after the elimination of the film employment tax credit.

"The irony is incredible," she said. "I think there are a lot of people in the film community who are pretty upset when they hear that's his reason for being in L.A."

Ellson said he doesn't believe the film industry in Saskatchewan has been wiped out.

"We have put several millions of dollars into screen-based production in the last 12 months. It's just not the big blockbuster movies," he said.