It’s difficult to read Brendan Nelson’s account of mingling with stallholders at the Adelaide Central Market in his “Listening Tour” without thinking of Republican frontrunner John McCain.

Last year, McCain also paid a much publicised visit to a market – in Baghdad. He bought a rug and dickered with traders: proof, he said, that many areas of Iraq were safe for Americans to travel.

Of course, he neglected to mention that his shopping trip took place under the protection of a hundred American soldiers, three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships.

Nelson might not have brought quite the same firepower to Adelaide but he was following the same script. The “Listening Tour” (“G’day, it’s Brendan here!”) seeks to demonstrate that the electorate has now been sufficiently pacified that even a Liberal leader can walk freely. The polls might show that 91% of voters would rather eat nails than have Nelson as prime minister but, oddly, this never comes up with the people Brendan meets. Instead, a woman needs his help putting petrol in a car and a shopper wants assistance getting groceries in a bag.

Stunts like Nelson’s roadtrip or Kevin Rudd’s 2020 forum – or, for that matter, John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” bus tour across America – are invariably touted as responses to the evaporation of real political debate elsewhere. With every survey showing huge swathes of the population entirely disengaged from the political process, populist gestures carry a certain force. If no-one follows turgid parliamentary debates or joins political parties or even reads political coverage, surely it’s good to find new ways to engage the populace?

In fact, these stage-managed events are further symptoms of the disease infecting the body politic rather than any part of its cure. Carefully controlled and carefully scripted, they seek to manufacture a simulacrum of democracy rather than the thing itself. Imagine if cameras captured Nelson confronted by a voter denouncing him about eleven years of John Howard. His minders would not consider the incident a healthy exchange of opinions – they’d conclude they had a PR disaster on their hands.

(We might note in passing that, while John McCain promotes himself as a plain-speaking man, his campaign managers are unlikely to consider revelations that he refers to his wife Cindy as a “trollop” and a “c-nt” an example of the straight talk they seek to project.)

It’s easy to mock the hapless Brendan Nelson (and fun, too). But scepticism shouldn’t be equated with cynicism. If anyone’s cynical, it’s the organisers of these Potemkin events. Politicians see normal people as backdrops and photo opportunities and soundbites. They just never imagine them as active political agents.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.

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