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December 17, 2014

Editor’s letter: Et tu, Brutus?

One version of the legend surrounding the last words of Julius Caesar has the dictator crying out: "Tu quoque, Brute, fili me?" as he realised that among the Ides of March conspirators was Roman senator Brutus.

Different accounts suggest a close, almost a father-son relationship between the two men, as "fili mi" means "my son" in Latin.

Legend also has it that when Caesar recognised Brutus as one of the traitors (or liberators as they called themselves), he accepted his fate and stopped repelling the attack. About 23 stab wounds gashed his body, of which just one was lethal.

Terrible though it may have been, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on 15 March 44 BC mainly because he betrayed the values of the Roman republic, the democracy of the time, and was deemed to be putting himself above the law.

The quote "Et tu, Brutus?" has gone down in history, though, as an expression of astonishment at his friend’s ingratitude. True, Brutus was stabbing a close friend but also a statesman who had overstepped his duties.

Once again we should remember how close the words accountancy and accountability are, and how the profession’s ultimate goal is to work in the public interest. Shouldn’t accountants be as relentless as Brutus when fighting corruption, particularly those within the public sector?

The difference, however, should lie in the weapons used to unmask the mismanagement of those charged with authority. Internal controls, good governance, ethics, transparency, accrual-based accounting standards – those should be the sharpened knives of the profession, if such work in the public interest is to be honoured.

Not far from the Roman senate where Caesar’s assassination took place, the World Congress of Accountants (WCOA) was held in November. From start to finish, one of the main themes was the relevance of public sector accounting and good public financial management, a field of accounting that hasn’t developed as fast as it has in the private sector.

At the opening ceremony, IFAC’s immediate past-president Warren Allen recalled how historians cite government corruption among the reasons behind the decline of the Roman Empire.

Today, he said, too much is lost "due to shadowy and secret dealings" in nations where aid and investment is needed most. He added that a strengthened accountancy profession in those nations can help combat corruption.

But the need for greater transparency and accountability doesn’t apply only to developing economies. As IFAC’s new president Olivia Kirtley emphasised in her speech at the closing ceremony, the need to adopt full accrual accounting in the public sector is crucial everywhere.

Perhaps accountants from two economic powerhouses, Germany and the US, should take stock of IFAC’s president’s call and start leading the transition to full accrual accounting.

This double issue of The Accountant includes some, but not all, of the coverage from the WCOA. January’s issue will feature more insights from the Congress. See you next year for more insights from the world’s leading practitioners.

Carlos Martin Tornerocarlos.tornero[at]uk.timetric.com

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