Gerald Butts is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's top adviser, making him arguably the second most influential person in this Liberal government given his regular involvement with the PM on the most sensitive and important files.

So when Butts took to Twitter on Monday to defend the government's decision to pay his friend Rana Sarkar, the country's new consul general in San Francisco, far more than the usual scale for the posting, it was worth paying attention.

Those 15 tweets, delivered in rapid succession, went something like this:

  • Sarkar comes to the post with impressive business qualifications, including his most recent job as the director of high-growth markets for KPMG.
  • His pay is consistent with other diplomats who are paid above scale in important posts such as London, New York and Washington.
  • He and other Liberal appointees from the private sector are taking big pay cuts to serve their country.

What Butts didn't mention is that Sarkar ran and lost for the Liberals in a Toronto-area seat in 2011, and that he ran and lost a nomination battle for another Toronto riding four years later.

As some on Twitter were quick to note, Sarkar would have had to take an even bigger pay cut as an MP if he'd been elected. It's a sacrifice many others have made, notably former prime minister Paul Martin.

That's not the case here.

The pay scale

According to cabinet orders posted online, Sarkar's salary scale as consul general in San Francisco is between $221,300 and $260,300. The normal range for a consul general is between $119,600 and $140,700.

Sarkar certainly comes to the position with impressive credentials. Besides his post at KPMG, he's also been the CEO of the Canada-India Business Council.

And he's not the first or the only person to be paid above scale.

In a statement emailed to the CBC News in response to questions, PMO spokesperson Cameron Ahmad provided a number of examples where senior public servants and former politicians appointed by both this government and the previous Conservative government were paid above scale.

Gary Doer, for example, earned between $235,000 and $276,500 as Stephen Harper's ambassador to Washington, when the standard salary scale was between $172,200 and $202,500. Paul Maddison, the former commander of the Canadian navy before Harper named him high commissioner to Australia, makes between $219,100 and $257,700, instead of of the typical range between $133,900 and $157,500.

The role

Ahmad said Sarkar's mandate is similar to that of an ambassador because of the size of California economy, and the importance this government attaches to developing closer ties to the high-tech industry in the Silicon Valley outside San Francisco.

"Mr. Sarkar's mandate is far greater than what the position traditionally entailed."

PMO officials, speaking off the record, expanded on that mandate. His job, they said, is to end the brain drain of Canadian innovators to Silicon Valley, to encourage high-tech companies to expand in Canada and to open up new markets in the U.S. and Asia for an increasingly important economic innovation sector.

When asked if that meant the San Francisco office would be getting additional staff and more resources, the officials said no decisions had been made.

It's clear from the cabinet orders that Sarkar alone is getting nearly double the usual pay rate among the private-sector leaders tapped by the Liberals for diplomatic posts.

Comparable salaries

David MacNaughton, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., and UN Ambassador Marc-André Blanchard are paid between $247,900 and $291,600.

Phyllis Yaffe, the Liberals' pick as consul general in New York, is also paid above scale, earning between $153,600 and $180,600. But that's far closer to the normal scale than Sarkar.

"Rana Sarkar's salary as CG (consul-general) is completely in line with those other appointments from the private sector," Butts wrote on his Twitter feed Monday.

Except that it isn't.

Conservative MP Blaine Calkins says no one's questioning Sarkar's qualifications, or the importance of the kind of work he will be doing. But he says it's clear he's getting special treatment.

"The job comes with a salary range," Calkins said. "And the PMO knows that. The issue here is another well-connected Liberal is being rewarded with taxpayers' money."

The challenge now for the Liberals is to convince the public that Sarkar is the best person for the job he's been given, instead of whether he's worth the price.