On Twitter, The Age's Diplomatic Editor Daniel Flitton responded to my query about why Prime Minister Gillard had to come home from the Pacific Islands Forum after the Australian combat deaths in Afghanistan:

Simple issue of imagery I'd have thought. Gillard at idyllic lagoon as nation mourns ... how it would be seen

Yes, that's plausible. One can easily imagine TV reporters making mischief with such a situation, even if Gillard herself was disciplined about the settings she appeared in. It might have been possible to limit the damaging 'optics' by just getting the PM from the hotel to the car to the venue and back. And if a potentially damaging photo op was in prospect, the PM could have opted out by saying publicly that, although she's staying on at the conference to conduct the nation's business, in the circumstances it wouldn't be appropriate for her to appear in settings of luxury or tropical beauty.

Perhaps, instead of vague, unconvincing explanations about going home to 'receive briefings' (as Nic Stuart said yesterday, there was really nothing for the PM to do in Canberra in relation to these deaths), the PM could have stood her ground by making a public case that, although the fighting in Afghanistan is tough and leads to tragedy, 'as Prime Minister it is my duty to advance the nation's interests on all fronts, including in the Pacific islands.'

That she did not do any of these things tells you something about the power of images in politics, and about where the Pacific islands sit in Gillard's list of priorities. Would she have made the same call had she been attending a G20 meeting?

Photo by Flickr user Mr. T in DC.