Helen Wheeler

Helen Wheeler

Helen Wheeler was a teacher, museum educator and education consultant before volunteering full time as Sophie Scamps’ Southern Beaches Area Leader. She’s now on Sophie’s electorate office staff. Helen loves swimming, travel, bike riding, trivia, rugby, good wine and worm farming.
Helen Wheeler

I HAVE ALWAYS been interested in politics but hadn’t done any active campaigning before 2022, apart from doing pre-poll for a friend who ran for Willoughby Council. Towards the end of 2021 I became extremely fed up with Scott Morrison’s eternal lying, ducking and weaving, and really wanted to see a change in the Federal Government. I’d heard about a new independent candidate for Mackellar, Dr Sophie Scamps, and she seemed to align with my values.

I signed up as a volunteer and went to a park in Dee Why to pick up my T-shirt and flyers to do a letterbox drop. I spoke with Sophie and was very impressed with her – here was an intelligent, articulate, trustworthy, environmentally-aware woman who would make an excellent MP for Mackellar. That was it – I was in! 

I told Rebecca, a volunteer manager, that I’d help out with organising if needed. I committed, and ended up delivering flyers to five letterbox areas.

I’d always felt uncomfortable celebrating Australia Day and the Ride With Aboriginal Peoples was something I could do to show my support. Sophie was taking part, but did not want to politicise the event and asked for no Sophie T-shirts. My friend Marina and I put our creative hats on – we made a yellow sun for our black T-shirts and pinned red, black and yellow streamers to our collar which flew in the wind as we rode.

As we waited in Narrabeen to meet up with riders from Manly I saw two women dressed in Aboriginal support gear riding towards us. Jules and Lee would become a big part of the campaign and, I believe, life-long friends.

A part-time volunteer job

I decided not to seek work contracts until after the election and to dedicate five months of my life to campaigning for Sophie. The ‘Southern Beaches’, one of four areas of Mackellar, was lacking a leader and so I found myself with the job. After attending a few events I asked Jules if she’d be my 2IC. She was the perfect choice. We have complimentary skills, are both well-organised and can have a laugh. We were a great team and supported each other throughout.

I told my friends being an Area Leader was like a part-time job – I had to set aside time each day for “building the tribe”. Jules and I organised ‘Democracy Coffees’ at local cafes, ‘Democracy Walks’ around Long Reef and pub trivia. We ensured that new volunteers were phoned and welcomed to the team, given important information and declared their skills and interests. Our ‘Nation Builder’ software was evolving, and we were learning how to use it.

One morning at a ‘Democracy Coffee’ (in Sophie T-shirts in a conspicuous local café) as I relaxed with my morning cup of tea I felt everyone looking at me expectantly as if waiting for me to speak. I realised at that moment that they wanted me to be their leader – they were counting on it. So I gave them information about campaign progress and encouraged them all to keep giving of their time and signing up for events as I truly believed Sophie could win. 

My friend Marina and I had made bunting from fabrics destined for landfill to lend out to people for festive events in place of balloons and streamers. I asked the campaign team if they would use blue, white and yellow bunting for Sophie events and they said a big YES.

Bunting sewing bee – #MackellarVotes

So, I organised a ‘Sophie Bunting Sewing Bee’ one morning at my house. About 30 people (only one man!) in blue T-shirts turned up. Marina gave everyone instructions and they were off! People were ironing, cutting, sewing and chatting, enjoying making a practical contribution to our common goal. My home had an excited buzz – like we were on the verge of something big happening.

For International Women’s Day, our Northern Beaches Boomerang Bunting team was invited to Sophie’s morning tea to celebrate Mackellar women who volunteer for different causes. Before the event Marina and I put up the Sophie bunting. It looked amazing and transformed the room – we were very proud.

Bunting at the #MackellarVotes electorate office open day

Also, for International Women’s Day the call went out for women volunteers to speak on video about why they were voting for Sophie. Four of us rocked up to TV chef Ed Halmagyi’s (aka ‘Fast Ed’) studio in Warriewood. We were all very nervous but after a few takes Ed was happy with each of our performances. I usually dislike appearing in videos, but I was willing to take myself out of my comfort zone for the cause.

A full time job

By now I was telling my friends that being an Area Leader was a full-time job. It was all day every day, but I was loving it! Marina offered to coordinate the creation of bunting as I was snowed under with other duties. She made bunting sewing kits for people to take home and coordinated the pick-up and delivery of bunting – a huge job. 

Marina and I visited the Avalon Boomerang Bags group and they kindly made bunting for us too. We kept to our environmental principles (and those of Sophie) – the bunting was made from donated fabrics. Old doonas and sheets became festive, lovingly-made blue, white and yellow bunting displayed at all Sophie’s events. By election day we had hundreds of metres of it and to this day we use it for events.

I organised a strategy meeting at my house for a week-day evening. About 50 people turned up and we had some drinks and socialised for a bit. I gave a bit of a bio about myself and how I’d delayed working for five months to put everything into Sophie’s campaign. I think it helped those present to have real confidence in Sophie. In fact, someone asked me in front of everyone:

“Do you think Sophie can win?”

And I said a definite:


Because I could feel it in my bones. 

I then did my teacher bit and put them into groups according to their suburb. I gave each group a grid to fill in with their ideas to engage their suburb in the election campaign. They were buzzing about the things they could do in their local area, the places they knew best. I summarised all of their ideas and uploaded the document to the Area Leaders’ Google Drive for the campaign team to view.

We had Area Leader Zoom meetings every Monday night, and one-off sessions, and Deb, Guy, Phil and I became good friends. We shared ideas, knowledge and experiences, and it was great to feel we could phone each other for advice and support. Leonie Scarlett, the volunteer coordinator, was always encouraging us and cracking the whip. We learnt fast about this campaigning business!

Throughout the campaign I only wavered once in my faith that Sophie would win; about three weeks before Election Day when a few political shenanigans were going on I had a panic. A few days later I was back to my usual optimistic self. Positivity was key – we were always constructive and never critical of the other candidates.

Jules and Lee went away for two weeks in early March, and I really missed them. The campaign was starting to ramp up and I was extremely pleased to see them when they got back!

The campaign turned ‘serious’ in mid-March. Social activities such as coffees, walks and trivia to build the tribe kept going, but now we added the critical campaign activities- ‘Street Listening’, ‘Door Knocking’ and ‘Banner-waving’.

Street listening with Sophie Scamps – #MackellarVotes

Street listening and door knocking were very strategic and required instruction. Training sessions were on Zoom or at the campaign office and I also trained volunteers in my home. The key was to listen to what the people of Mackellar wanted to say, not bombard them with statistics and facts.

Banner-waving was sooooo much fun! Twice a week the Southern Beaches volunteers appeared at Dee Why or Beacon Hill. We also went to banner waves in the Pittwater and Forest areas. Rain or shine we were out there at 6.30 am on some very cool and wet mornings dancing and singing to playlists created by Jules. Neil Diamond, Tom Jones and ABBA got us all going, and we waved and smiled at drivers while holding up our Sophie signs like religious zealots! The supporters tooted, waved and gave the thumbs up to us – such a buzz. Though they were outnumbered, others gave us various negative hand signals and I’d blow them a kiss and smile. I hadn’t had so much fun in years!

#MackellarVotes banner waving volunteers

The ‘SupporterBase’ app was essential for people to find out about events and sign up to volunteer for them. Getting volunteers to use the app was my biggest bugbear of the campaign. It was such a great way for vols to claim shifts of street listening or door knocking, and to RSVP for events, but some volunteers didn’t have the technological skill or the inclination to use the app, so they had to be phoned or emailed individually, a frustration when my time was so precious. I spent hours on the phone talking people through the process of getting on the app and claiming shifts as I saw it as an investment of my time to save me having to email or phone them later. I was very encouraging and patient but, in my head, I wanted to scream “just get on the f…ing app!” to everyone.

A 24/7 vocation

By this point every day and every night there was something on. I dreamed about the campaign or came up with ideas at 3 am. I was still loving it, apart from the vols not getting on the app.

At the beginning of April I went away for 10 days on a prearranged holiday mountain-biking in the Kosciusko National Park. I considered continuing to work remotely but decided with Jules that I needed a break to recharge before the hardest part – the run-up to Election Day. I knew I could rely on Jules, and she had Lee to support her. We were joined at the hip by this time and met almost every day at an event or organising something. Jules did a sterling job while I was away and gave it her all.  She organised the 7 km mega banner-wave with military precision when the election date was finally announced. 

The evening I returned I was straight back into it and went to the Climate Forum at Mona Vale. Jules and Lee ran over to me when they saw me and said how relieved they were that I was back. I knew that feeling! Louise Hislop, who’d worked on Zali Steggall’s 2019 campaign in Warringah, said after the forum the atmosphere in the room was something special and she was now almost certain Sophie would win (Margo: Louise predicted the win in a No Fibs podcast published on April 29). 

An all-consuming passion

At this point my friends had given up on me – “Hey Helen, we’ll see you after Election Day”. They knew I was committed 100%. I wore my Sophie T-shirt and cap everywhere I went which led to some interesting conversations at the supermarket. Around this time Jules and I became Southern Beaches Area Co-leaders rather than leader and 2IC – we were partners.

I held another strategy meeting at my home and Sonia did a superb job training lots of vols for street listening and door knocking. My house was covered in bunting and corflutes and my carport was the storage for Sophie corflutes, A-frame signs, flyers and newspapers. People in blue T-shirts visited at all times of day and night collecting and delivering paraphernalia. My neighbours said their visitors were always asking them “does Dr Sophie live next door?”.

Things went up another level when the pre-poll and election day booths rosters were finalised. It was a huge job to get Booth Captains and volunteers for two weeks of shifts pre-polling at Brookvale and for 12 booths on election day. Jules and I worked night and day on rosters and eventually all the places were filled.

Brookvale pre-poll with Lee, Jules and Tim #MackellarVotes

Pre-Polling at Brookvale, which we shared with the Warringah Electorate, was full-on. Jules and I each set up at crack of sparrows and pack down at 8 pm every alternate day. Fortunately, Simon and Sam offered to share the load. We got to Brookvale earlier and earlier as time went on to grab the best spots for our signage. One morning we got there in the dark at 5 am to find that someone had put all the UAP signs in the garden. There was generally a good camaraderie between the different political parties, however a Sophie volunteer was thrown to the ground by one of Katherine Deves’ volunteers in an incident that left him, rightly, shaken up. It was reported to police.

As well as managing the pre-poll booth, Jules and I did site inspections of the 12 election day booths we were responsible for. We took photos and estimated the signage needed for ‘E-Day’. Street listening, door knocking, banner-waving, democracy coffees, walks and trivia, meetings, and events were still going on during pre-poll AND we wanted to get everything right for election day. 

Finally, 21 May 2022 arrived

Jules and I were up in the dark at 4.30 am to start our rounds of the 12 booths. We had a shock at Narraweena Public School, the largest booth in Mackellar. The Sophie signage that had been erected the night before (and that we had paid a security guard to protect overnight!) were ripped down and had been replaced with Jason Falinski corflutes. We got into gear and worked hard to put ours back up as best we could, but all the good spots had been taken by the blue man. We stayed positive and did not retaliate by ripping his signs down, though we were sorely tempted!

The whole day was exciting – we felt we were making history with our upbeat band of volunteers. We spent the day visiting the booths to troubleshoot issues, and at 6pm went back to my place and collapsed on my couch to watch the ABC. I had a casserole slow cooking all day and Jules, Lee and I ate that with a few wines. We were getting comfortable on the couch about 7 pm thinking we would go to the Dee Why RSL about 9 pm, as we thought Mackellar would be called late.

Out of the blue a result from Mackellar representing 0.00000000001% of the vote showed Sophie ahead. We screamed, stood up and said, “Get your shoes” and “Book an Uber” and scrambled to DYRSL. 

Every metre of bunting was on display and the mood was electric in a massive room that held about 1200 people in blue T-shirts. An hour later Antony Green called Mackellar for Sophie and the room went wild, and I mean WILD! I jumped on my chair and screamed and danced and cried. Anyone who was there won’t forget it. 

Antony Green called Mackellar for Sophie and the room went wild

I have never felt such euphoria in my life. To work so hard, for so long with like-minded people to make positive change for our country was a feeling of pure exhilaration. The night from then on was phenomenal. Sophie spoke, we all cried and then we danced on the stage to all our banner-waving songs while holding up our jumpers as ‘banners’. It was hilarious. I crawled into bed after midnight – exhausted but so happy.

The next week was tough

I was on a high but weary, and kept thinking there was something I should be doing. After two days I rang Jules just because I hadn’t spoken to her for two days – it was so weird. It took a long time to unwind from the campaign. In the weeks after the election, I received touching messages from people who thanked me and said I had encouraged and inspired them on the campaign, and I felt really good about that.

The 225 Southern Beaches Area volunteers were fabulous. They worked incredibly hard, though many of them had full-time jobs or young families or both. We have a chat group called ‘Southern Legends’ and legends they certainly are! We felt so proud that we ‘turned’ eleven out of twelve of the Southern Area booths from Jason to Sophie on election day – and made history. 

IN JUNE I applied for a position in Sophie’s electorate office in Narrabeen as a Constituent Liaison Officer and was extremely happy to get it. I love helping the people of Mackellar with their issues and Sophie is the ideal person to work for. The atmosphere in the office is always so constructive and appreciative and it’s great to be working together towards our common goals.

IN AUGUST about 100 of us drove to Canberra to watch Sophie’s first speech in parliament. This was real. Sophie did us all proud and we rose to our feet as one in the gallery. I will never forget that day.

After Sophie’s first speech in Parliament with Lee, Sophie and Jules – #MackellarVotes

It’s eight months since the election, and it is good to reflect on it with a bit of distance. I feel privileged to have worked on the campaign. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone for something and someone I believe in. 

Sophie, now in her position as an MP, is kicking goals in Canberra – meeting ministers, making speeches, asking questions in parliament and truly representing the people of Mackellar. She is an excellent listener and is doing politics differently.

As I drive around the electorate I see schools and churches as polling booths, and I’m always bumping into Sophie vols. I call my new Mackellar friends ‘Sophie villagers’. Like a traditional village, we socialise and look after each other and contribute to environmental groups and charities. 

I’m so grateful to have these amazing people in my life. We have a special bond as we gave our all and made history together. I have found my tribe.

A word from Margo: No Fibs has history with #MackellarVotes – we covered Alice Thompson’s #IndependentsDay campaign in 2019, where she paved the way for Dr Sophie Scamps, as James Mathieson did for Zali at the 2016 election. And of course there’s Louise Hislop, who became a campaign manager for Zali in 2019, worked in her electorate office, then moved to Mackellar, where she teamed up with an old friend, Leonie Scarlett on Sophie’s campaign team.  Louise wrote her story in a seven part series on No Fibs called #WinningofWarringah and said there was a winning Mackellar vibe in the under-radar seat in a mid-campaign #transitzone podcast. #Transitzone did the first interview with Sophie in October 2021 when, as a member of Mackellar Rising, she was seeking a candidate and did not intend to run. We published Sophie’s launch speech and collated a live Twitter launch report. Her volunteer coordinator Leonie Scarlett wrote an account of her journey, as did volunteers Paul Boland, Julie Donald, Michael Osbourne, Joy Nason, Jan Proudfoot, Beth Jessup. Flan Cleary collated his emails to Irish friend on his volunteer adventure, Marita Macrae, Kerry Smith and Margaret Woods teamed up for a joint contribution and Joanna ML’s series is a very valuable, information packed, addition. Thank you Helen, and more Mackellar volunteer stories are welcome!