Prime Time Crime


(An edited version was published in the National Post Apr. 26, 2005)

Liberal Drift?


  By John Martin

As a Criminology Professor, one of my objectives in the classroom is to encourage the connection between theory and behaviour.  There are numerous, and often repetitive, theoretical models intended to help us understand and explain criminality.  Some of these focus on personality and upbringing.  Others look at social conditions and neighbourhood deterioration.  Still, others attempt to link criminality to the evils of capitalism (the dinosaurs may be extinct but there’s a whole breed of belly-dragging Criminologist that refuses to make its way to the tar pits).

One of the best sociological models to shine on the sponsorship scandal is known as "Drift Theory" Conceived in the 60’s by David Matza and Gresham Sykes, Drift Theory demonstrates how otherwise law-abiding citizens can so easily move between conforming behaviour and blatant criminality.  The theory suggests that many offenders, most of the time, embrace pro-social values and respect the law.  But through a series of rationalizations and justifications, they are able to willingly engage in highly illegal behaviour and still come away with a clear conscience.  In effect, offenders learn techniques that allow them to neutralize their values and beliefs in order to do crime. 

Sykes and Matza claim that they do so by employing one or more of the five “techniques of neutralization.”  Oh yes, and even though Sykes and Matza developed this model specifically to look at juvenile offending, it seems to work remarkably well in the case of the Liberal Party of Canada.

First, is the Denial Of Responsibility.  Offenders typically seek to blame someone else for the allegations made against them.  In the case of Adscam, there is supposedly a significant distinction between the Paul Martin Liberal Government and the Jean Chrétien Liberal Government.  Consequently, it would be unreasonable to hold this administration accountable for the misdeeds of the previous one.  Or as Bart Simpson is always fond of saying, “I didn’t do it.”

Second, we have the Denial Of Injury.  In this case, offenders argue no one was hurt by their actions; it’s not a big deal.  Apologists for the sponsorship mess have repeatedly noted that 250 million dollars is little more than the proverbial drop in the bucket and a bit of petty cash is bound to go astray while managing an overall budget of such enormity.

Next is Condemning The Condemners. Here, the offenders portray their accusers as hypocrites and argue they’re no worse than the people pointing the finger.  This has been a mainstay for Liberal apologists since the scandal broke.  They constantly refer back to corruption in the Mulroney government.  Supporters argue that all politicians are crooks so why not stick with the Liberals?  And Liberal strategists were ecstatic when they found out that the Separatists might have received kickbacks as well.  “See, you guys do it too.”

Fourth, is Appealing To Higher Loyalties.  In this instance, offenders may admit committing the criminal act but because of loyalty to other people, a particular cause or a higher order, breaking the letter of the law is justified.  For the Liberal Party of Canada, this is the one they desperately cling to.  Defenders continue to argue that despite how badly everything went, it was worth it to fight the Separatists and save Canada.  Or, as Chrétien put it, what’s a “few million dollars stolen in order to save the country?”

Rarely does every component of a sociological theory perfectly match up with a particular incident or series of incidents.  Such is the case when using Drift Theory to understand Adscam.

There is a fifth technique of neutralization; Denial Of Victim.  Denying the victim refers to instances where the offender is adamant that rather than consider the injured party an innocent victim, we should understand that “he had it coming” or “it’s his own fault”. 

Needless to say, the government comes nowhere near suggesting that taxpayers got what they deserved.

After voting in four consecutive Liberal governments, they don’t have to.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

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