A senior climate adviser to the Manitoba government charged nearly $60,000 in travel expenses to the province in a year, according to documents obtained by freedom-of-information requests by the Opposition NDP.
David McLaughlin, the province's senior adviser on its to-be-released climate change strategy, made more than 30 trips between August 2016 and July 2017, according to the documents provided to CBC News by the NDP.
At least 15 of the trips were between Winnipeg and Ottawa, where McLaughlin lives. A further 15 trips detailed in the documents don't include information about where McLaughlin travelled.
McLaughlin, who served as campaign manager for the Progressive Conservatives during the 2016 election, was hired by the province after the party took power to advise on the creation of a climate strategy touted by the premier as a "made-in-Manitoba" alternative to the pan-Canadian framework.
"The premier has said many times that this is a made-in-Manitoba climate change strategy," said New Democrat MLA Andrew Swan.
"So it seems strange that our freedom-of-information request has shown that his climate change adviser has charged the taxpayers of Manitoba for 30 trips in the past year, most of which are to or through Ottawa, where this gentleman has his primary residence."
The travel expenses come on top of McLaughlin's salary, Swan said, and include $1,000 in flight change fees to extend stays in Winnipeg and a nearly $2,000 hotel bill for four days in Washington, D.C.
Travel expenses part of contract: premier
Premier Brian Pallister said McLaughlin's trips were largely to maintain contact with his young family, who live in Ottawa. Travel expenses were paid in accordance with his contract, and paying them was a condition of his employment, Pallister added.
"He is away from his family a considerable amount of time, and we recognize and respect the fact that with a young family, that he deserves to be with his family and that was a condition of his employment, that we would cover his travel costs," Pallister said.
McLaughlin may have done some negotiating with the federal government in Manitoba and out of it as part of his role, Pallister added, and some of the trips include stops in Toronto and the U.S. for business.
The premier said McLaughlin, who served as president for the National Roundtable on the Environment and The Economy for five years, is an internationally respected expert on climate change and sustainable development.
"This is a multi, multi, hundreds of millions of dollars issue for the province of Manitoba and we need the best people we can get, and David McLaughlin is one of the finest, most respected environmental experts in the country," Pallister said.
McLaughlin also served Conservative governments federally and in New Brunswick.
No severance for McLaughlin, premier says
On Wednesday, the Progressive Conservatives publicized the legal opinion of the University of Manitoba's Dr. Bryan Schwartz, who concluded the federal government would likely withstand a Supreme Court challenge if it imposes a carbon tax on the provinces as part of its climate framework.
Schwartz also said a Manitoba-made version would likely hold up in court if challenged by Ottawa, provided the Manitoba plan is just as effective as the national program.
Pallister told reporters Thursday McLaughlin has met with more than 300 Manitoba groups since being hired, and the climate plan is expected to be made public in the next two weeks or so.
"I don't know exactly the date that we'll be terminating him, but I can assure you that unlike the previous administration we won't be paying him severance," Pallister said.
"We will not be pay people not to work here. He is paid to work and he has been working very, very hard for the people of Manitoba and I really appreciate the fact we've had his tremendous expertise to help us."
Climate plan coming soon?
Manitoba has rejected a plan by the federal government to set up either a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax that would start next year at $10 a tonne and ramp up to $50 a tonne by 2022. The federal government has said if a province refuses, Ottawa will enact a similar tax.
Pallister has repeatedly hinted he will bring in a lower levy and has said the province deserves credit for having spent billions of dollars building its clean-energy hydro grid.
A document obtained last month by The Canadian Press said the province was eyeing a $25-per-tonne carbon levy. The government has said the document was a draft and has refused further comment on it.