Saffin was born into a working-class family in Ipswich in Queensland. She left school at thirteen, and worked in a range of unskilled jobs before gaining her Intermediate Certificate at TAFE. She moved to Lismore at the age of 24, and began working as the co-ordinator of a women's refuge. She also established a domestic violence liaison committee with the local police, which was the first of its kind outside Sydney. She later gained a teaching qualification at the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education, and taught for a period before deciding to retrain as a lawyer and gaining a degree by correspondence from Macquarie University.
She ran as the Labor candidate for the seat of Lismore at the 1991 state election, but was defeated by incumbent National Party MP Barry Rixon. Four years later, she contested and won preselection for the eighth and last winnable position on the Labor ticket for the Legislative Council at the 1995 state election. Labor's victory at the election thus saw her comfortably elected, albeit on preferences, on election day.
Saffin was well liked in her base region of northern New South Wales during her term, and established a reputation as an effective advocate for regional areas. She was associated with the Socialist Left faction of the party throughout her term, and was involved in advocating for progressive causes both inside and outside of parliament. She took a particular interest in the fate of East Timor and Burma, and was an official observer for the International Commission of Jurists at the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor. She was actively involved in feminist causes, and was one of only two Australian representatives at the Global Forum of Women Political Leaders in Manila in 2000. She also worked as an anti-nuclear campaigner, being involved in the campaigns against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and uranium mining at Jabiluka. She attempted to gain Labor preselection for a second term before the 2003 state election, but missed out on one of her faction's three winnable positions, instead choosing to retire.
Saffin had met East Timorese foreign minister José Ramos-Horta a number of times as an MP, and in 2004, having left politics, she moved to East Timor to take up a position as Ramos-Horta's chief political and legal advisors. She served in the role for three years assisting in the rebuilding of the country, staying with Ramos-Horta through his election first to Prime Minister and then President in 2007. She resigned in early 2007, choosing to return to Australia for "family reasons" and contest preselection for the National Party held federal seat of Page, based around her hometown of Lismore. She faced a difficult preselection contest against right faction candidate and local mayor Ian Tiley, but emerged successful.
Saffin then faced a difficult contest in the general election against new National Party candidate Chris Gulaptis, with previous member Ian Causley having decided to retire at the election. Causley had held the seat with a 5.5% margin, which saw the possibility of victory initially considered unlikely. However, as Labor continued to poll well in the seat, they began to supply more resources to the campaign, with the party's assistant secretary declaring Page to be a "target seat" in September. She campaigned heavily on industrial relations, health and housing affordability, and received a 2PP swing of 7.8%, beating the Nationals candidate on Greens preferences. This resulted in Page being one of the first seats nationally to be declared on election night.