Should we care what type of car people in the public eye drive? Or what anyone drives, for that matter?
I'm asking because this particular idea was inserted into an otherwise topical debate I was a part of recently. In what I'm guessing was a justification for piling on the hate for a certain high-profile lawyer, it was noted that he drove an expensive car. I'm still not sure what point was being made.
If you're driving my money, it matters. If you're driving your own, it doesn't. Some people wouldn't hire a lawyer or realtor or business owner who didn't look successful enough to drive a fancy-pants car; some of us would give it a think and debate the message, knowing that car was funded on the backs of those they bill. That line is narrow, and the goalposts move all the time as we trade "reasonable" for "outrageous" in the blink of an eye. Think they don't move? Get divorced.
Everything looks different in another light. I've seen many divorcing spouses rush out to buy a new car, expense be damned, in a final push to not get stuck with the crappy car. The new car you couldn't afford when you were together all of a sudden becomes reasonable when love has flown out the window. Did the finances change? Usually only for the worse. But when we think the previous sacrifice is now for the wrong person, nobody is willing to make it. It's the equivalent of ordering the most expensive item on the menu at a group dinner because you know you're going to get dinged for a percentage, rather than the actual cost of your meal.
Such vehicle debates may get heated in the confines of a courthouse, but they can get just as heated anywhere. Why does someone in subsidized housing have a new vehicle? Why does your idiot brother-in-law have that big SUV when you know he can't afford it? Why doesn't grandma, who has more money than Midas, replace that 20-year-old boat she still drives?
Much is made of what Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, drives. When he drove an old minivan, he was called everything from a man-of-the-people to a phoney. He said he liked the van. I have no reason to doubt him. When he instead started driving a more elaborate SUV, he was called a hypocrite, because he no longer looked like a man-of-the-people. It didn't matter that Ford pretty much personally funds everything about his mayoralty (except the swear jar): if you make an issue of the optics, the optics will become their own issue. I think this working for free (sorry, "donated to charity") is a nonsense smoke screen: it's a cheap shot that simultaneously derides your colleagues who sanely know that fair pay for fair work is respected, and lets me know exactly how much you've decided your contributions are worth.
I can tell you this: I don't know what other mayors drive, because I don't care. You probably don't, either. Most of their rides – and provincial and national leaders as well – are low key for a reason.
A poke around the budgets of most regions in Canada shows municipal budgets allot an amount for mileage for their elected counsellors. The higher the population represented, the more likely a mayor or deputy mayor will be provided with a car and/or driver.
For the vast majority who claim mileage costs, it doesn't matter whether the recipient drives a moped or a Rolls-Royce; the amount stays the same (about 44 to 54 cents per kilometre across Canada). Some jurisdictions have a fleet of cars; users of such vehicles (politician or staff) pay back personal use expenses on that car. Great pains are taken to keep this transparent, because it's been proven time and again that people will run around screaming about a few hundred dollars while overlooking hundreds of thousands. The flip side, of course, is when tightwad publicans use public funds for personal benefit, then deny or plead amnesia when caught.
If a high-profile private somebody makes a lot of money and wants to drive a high-end car, that is their prerogative. If they don't make much money but want everyone to think they do and they drive a drive a high-end car, that too is their prerogative. How you use your cash or credit rating is up to you, whether you're a public figure or not.
When does it matter? When they're elected, and throw down the gauntlet or stake their reputation on it. When they make a point of it, we get to as well. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson rides a bicycle, because that's his gauntlet-throwing-reputation-staking thing. In this spirit, Ford's Cadillac Escalade isn't even really big enough to make his point; he should have a fleet of Hummers that he alternates every day, a fitting image to fight back against the perceived war on cars.
The difference is the lawyer who tears around in a Lambo answers for it only – and symbolically – to those who want that lawyer representing them. A politician is taxed with representing everybody, whether the constituents like them or not.
Lawyers may like the heat, but the politicians should just stay out of the kitchen.