A virtual townhall tour came to London Monday night and a whopping 20,000 local voters took part. The townhall run jointly with Health Minister Deb Matthews, Attorney General Chris Bentley, London MPP Khalil Ramal and the big cheese Ontario’s Liberal Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was a bit shaky at the start. This night was one of a series of stops throughout Ontario as the Liberal government tries something new – virtual politics with a side dish of social media. I was called on the weekend by Minister Matthews. I am a consituent and I often end up writing her or talking her up regarding issues that impact adoptive parents and children in foster care. But the promised Monday night call failed to come at 7 p.m. so I hit twitter for answers. Lovely twitter, my instant connection to the world of anyone who cares about anything business related, brand related, news related or social media related. And let’s face it politics is really an exercise – at least partly – in branding. After I tweeted repeatedly that the hookup hadn’t taken place for me at 7 p.m. as it was intended, I decided to ask my questions that way and see if anyone was paying attention to the most relevant source of current information for this decade – Twitter. Happily someone from the Ministry of Finance had their little thumbs working fast enough to tweet back. And 25 minutes into the virtual tour I was cued up to what sounded a bit like a conference call. There were 20,000 people on the line. One hour to ask questions and have them answered and various polls were being taken as people waited to ask. You do the math. That meant maybe eight questions got asked in total. The majority were HST and some revolved around economic stimulation and worker retraining. Interesting enough I guess, but I am a Mom and these things all are fairly low on my list of priorities. Top three for me are these: children, education and health. So I tweeted out a question about what was in the budget for children. I got the pat answer mostly – the one this Liberal government thinks they can hang their hat on – FDK – full day kindergarten at more and more sites throughout the province. Minister Matthews indicated that full day kindergarten meant that schools are catching children’s issues earlier than ever. In a virtual townhall there is no way to argue that fact or elaborate from the cheap seats the truth – that in fact catching issues earlier isn’t doing a lot of good to most of the parents I talk to regularly. Kids with complicated diagnoses – FASD, special needs of many sorts and autism are still slipping through the cracks. In fact now they are doing so one year earlier. Services provided once a child is in school are pitiful or non existent entirely. A good friend of mine started her son, diagnosed with autism, at a London school with full day senior kindergarten. He doesn’t even have a half time Educational assistant to help. Before school started he at least had excellent supports for occupational therapy and other help as needed through Thames Valley Children’s Centre. But once you are enrolled in school that service is cut off. You can reapply to sit on a waitlist usually for a three second assessment for OT and you might get one or two, sad, short in school visits. My friend’s little guy, 6, doesn’t do full day SK. Oh – he’s enrolled alright. But most days he’s back home with his mother in the afternoon. He can’t cope in the classroom environment. One of my daughter’s friends at a school in our neighbourhood is in grade four. His diagnoses are complicated mental health and FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder). I could count on my one hand the number of full days he’s been in school since September. One of the MPPs mentioned fitness tax credits as a way in which children are being supported and nurtured by Premier Dad. Now, it’s no big mystery why London was one of the sites for this virtual tour. London is a bellweather riding for both provincial politicians and federal politicians. Voters in London often vote in such a way that what happens here parallels what happens across the province, both federally and provincially. This is also Health Minister Matthews home territory. She needs to hold this riding, as a key and pivotal face for the Ontario Liberals. In the upcoming election there will be a lot of glad-handing here by Matthews and McGuinty. So – a friend asked me after the tour – was it a success? Well, glitches I can understand. Technology can be fickle. On Tuesday the MPPs will call this a success because of the numbers, but the problem with virtual town halls is that they aren’t really very active. Most of the people on the other end of the call were passive listeners and that really only works for the person doing the talking. It also dumbs down debate by being so one-sided. A better format might have been a tweetup or a twitter chat with the MPPs. Twitter is a conversation between two parties. A good deal of information and some smart branding/outreach can be done through Twitter. But this virtual town hall is politics as usual with a side dish of social media at best. An interesting experiment, but not a lot of substance. How do you think politicians should use tehcnology and social media in the coming election?