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Interview with George Cassola

2 Aug 2019 12:00 | Anonymous
The Accountant – Sustainability. Summer 2019
The Institute of Accountants just launched an engaging publication tracing its history back to 1965. The Accountant sat down with author George Cassola to discover what goes behind writing such a unique and fascinating work.
Q: What drove you to write this unusual historical narrative?
 The Institute of Accountants first approached me with the idea in May 2015. That year was the fiftieth anniversary of the MIA, and the Institute wanted to commemorate the special occasion in a manner that suited its importance. It was decided that a publication telling its history would serve a longer purpose than holding some grand celebration. I had two good reasons for accepting to undertake this work. Firstly, I am a member of the Institute and I have myself lived through many of the events that shaped the development of the accountancy profession in Malta. Secondly, I have a strong interest in language and literature and have, over the years, written and published several pieces locally and overseas. The Institute’s invitation brought these two factors together and I could not resist.
Q: How long did it take you to complete the project?
 I wanted the book to be published as close to the anniversary year as possible and planned to do the job within two years, which was the minimum such a big project would take.
Q: Is it a book only for accountants?
 The part of our history that the book explores is enmeshed with other political and national events taking place during the last fifty years. In fact, it was necessary to insert a summary of local and international affairs that had an impact on the business of the Institute. The history of the MIA enlightens not only accountants, but anyone who wants to know more about our country’s history and the people who shaped it. Some sections in the book may interest accountants more, but the larger part of the book is of wider interest and can be enjoyed by readers who want to know about what went on behind the scenes, particularly in the sphere of local finance.
Q: Why do you describe the 1965 merger ‘historic’ in the book?
 In the early Sixties the accountancy profession in Malta was still in its early development and the fact that accountants were divided in two separate associations did not help its consolidation. Although the two organisations were not rivalling, they did not cooperate, and each followed its own plans. The awkwardness of the situation became evident when the Commercial Partnerships Ordinance was enacted in 1962, in which accountants were treated without distinction. With the merger the two bodies of accountants now came together as one Institute which became the sole representative voice of the profession, giving it both consistency and strength. The merger is historic because it created a national body that could perform as one undivided force in its sphere of activity.
Q: How would you describe the Institute at 50?
Today, after 50 years of development and activity, the Institute is hardly identifiable with what it was at the beginning. It has grown steadily in size, stature and influence. Its membership has grown from 65 to over 3,300. It is recognised by law as representative of the profession – after having struggled for decades to achieve this status. It is permanently seated on the Accountancy Board and drives many of the decisions that are taken in that forum. It is a player in the major European and international accountancy federations, where standards are set and policies are determined. It has a robust code of ethics and a policy of continuing professional education that no other profession has matched. And it has a modern main office where members and guests can work productively. All this took years to be achieved and, today, the Institute can say that it is in a good state. 
Q: We read that the profession is shaped by social and political events, but does accountancy also shape history?
When we talk of history, we often understand mainly the development of political events. Business and finance do not usually form part of the core historical narrative, except when they themselves impact on political events. However, when this happens, it is very rarely considered newsworthy and we do not hear about them often: for example, the development of IASs and IFRSs, especially IAS39 and IFRS9, has affected the dealings in international finance and banking, but it was never in the news. Then, once in a while, an event occurs and it makes it to the world’s top headlines, normally because it is negative. Consider the crash of Enron in 2001 and Worldcom soon after, or the fall of Lehmann Brothers which sparked the international financial crisis in 2008. So, yes, although under-reported in mainstream media, accountancy does influence history.
Q: If history is a lesson, what does half a century of the institute teach us?
 There are several lessons we can learn from the Institute’s history. The merger, for one, teaches us that there is strength in unity. The question of recognition teaches us to persevere in our goals. Other instances show us the wisdom of choosing dialogue over confrontation, of adopting a strong disciplinary stance, and above all of upholding fairness and integrity. Throughout the Institute’s history, there have been many cases where individual opinions did not always respect those precepts, but in the end the collective decisions remained true to the Institute’s principles.
Q: Is the MIA’s role in landmark national legislation under-recognised?
 For many years the Institute preferred to keep a low profile even if it was very active in many areas. While it made major contributions towards legal provisions and administrative practice in tax, finance, banking and other areas – besides, of course, accounting and auditing – its efforts were not widely publicised and have therefore not been sufficiently recognised. In particular, the Institute’s role in the continuing education of its professionals is much larger than is generally appreciated.
Q: What was the most surprising thing that you discovered in your research?
The commitment of members to the Institute. Initially the Institute was led by a Council of twelve members and a few committees mostly made up of the same twelve members. Eventually the number of committees started to grow, with members recruited from among the Institute’s members. That means that there have been hundreds of professionals contributing towards the work of the Institute on a voluntary basis. Considering the pressures that accountants are known to have at their workplace, it is amazing that so many offer to give their time freely.
Q: The Institute went through its own rough patches (such as the dispute over MDPs in 1998 or the SMPAC turmoil in 2002) – what is it that keeps the MIA strong and relevant?
Yes, there were numerous instances where the Institute had to struggle to push its views to the authorities. Besides the ones you mention there were the tax issues of the 1970s, the question of government audit tenders, the EU membership decision and others. What kept the Institute strong throughout the years was its sense of unity. Imagine if there were still two institutes as before the merger: authorities would have found a divided profession unable to promote common interests. The Institute remains relevant particularly because it keeps There are several lessons we can learn from the Institute’s history. The merger, for one, teaches us that there is strength in unity. abreast with local and international developments and discusses issues beyond its internal structures.
Q: What do you consider the top achievements of the MIA?
The book lists a number of milestones which I regard the Institute’s top achievements. Among those, perhaps the major ones were becoming a founder member of IFAC and joining FEE; the joint examination scheme with MIA; and the launch of GAPSE. International membership has given the MIA a recognition beyond our shores which it took several years to achieve within them. The joint scheme opened a new opportunity for those choosing the profession as their career, and GAPSE has facilitated the development of small business in Malta. But the greatest achievement must be keeping the profession united and representing its members with equity and integrity. With its growth into unprecented numbers, the Institute must find that task ever more daunting.
The Malta Institute of Accountants 1965-2015 can be purchased exclusively from the Institute where special rates are available for members, as well as purchases of 5 books and more. Email us at bookings@miamalta.org or call 2258 1900 for enquires.
George Cassola started his career as a civil servant, working in taxation and later in IT. After graduating as an accountant, he spent some years working in computer audit with a major audit firm. He then moved to the Employment & Training Corporation where he was Senior Manager Finance & IT and later joined APS Bank as Head Finance. For many years he was a visiting lecturer in Computer Audit at the University of Malta. Since his retirement, he has freelanced as a translator of business text and has published his dictionary or accounting terms in Maltese titled “Dizzjunarju tan-Negozju u l-Kontabilita".


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