Farmers' friend a thorn in miners' side

Every idea I had about proper process was offended.

Farming leader Fiona Simson relishes a good, fair fight, writes Gareth Hutchens.

Fiona Simson's parents became great caravanners in retirement. They loved to travel and see Australia, and each winter they would escape from chilly Armidale, where they lived, to lug their caravan around.

In 2009, after a trip to north Queensland, they were heading home, with plans to pop in to their son Andy's place near Morven, in Queensland. On the way, they had a collision with a B-double. Simson's father died instantly her mother was flown to hospital.

"The caravan, of course, was completely smashed. The car had gone over a culvert so it landed on its roof and rolled several times. Mum ended up wedged in this little spot between the door and the door frame. Miraculously, no broken bones lots and lots of bruising but no broken bones," Simson says. "She wished, of course, that she'd gone with dad."

Fiona Simson, 46, made news in July this year when she became the first woman president of the NSW Farmers Association (the modern association was formed in 1978 but its roots lie in the 1890s with the NSW Farmers and Settlers Association).

As vice-president Simson caused a row when the board called for a moratorium on new gas extraction and mining projects in NSW. The NSW Minerals Council, obviously miffed, accused her of being aligned with the Greens. "That [was] really meant to wound me," she says.

When she toppled the incumbent president, Charles Armstrong, in an election in which she campaigned strongly for change in the organisation, some thought she had cut down Armstrong in his prime. Simson says that the pace with which the coal seam gas industry has developed in NSW means the association has to do something, and quickly.

"I've worked with Charles very well for the past few years but I actually think we need to show that we can do something different and we're capable of doing something different in order to bring our members back and to ensure our longevity."

Simson says she has always had a highly developed sense of fairness, perhaps "overdeveloped", which she believes she got from her parents, Barbara and Rod Maclean, "very honest, hard-working people".

"They put great emphasis on treating people with respect and dignity. Mum used to ... say whether it was the Queen or the cleaner you treated them the same. And that's the sort of thing that I do now."

Simson grew up in Armidale on a historic sheep and cattle property that her father managed, called Saumarez Station. She recalls an idyllic childhood. Every day after school - PLC Armidale - she would saddle up her horse Fascination ("Fassy") and go for a gallop.

In the holidays she would be her father's jillaroo, mustering cattle on horseback alongside her older brother Andy.

"Fassy was about 14? hands. He was a beautiful grey dappled gelding with a grey nose and spikey mane," she says.

Her mother, a physiotherapist, encouraged her to attend university, and after a year in Denmark on a Rotary exchange scholarship she went to Canberra University where she completed a bachelor of business.

After university she moved to Sydney, where she was soon introduced to her future husband, Ed Simson. It was a pre-arranged meeting at a wedding a set-up by two friends.

The pair soon married soon and moved to Ed's property at Premer on the Liverpool Plains.

It was there she first recognised the problems farmers had with the mining industry, Simson says.

"We never even heard a thing about mining in Armidale. And you know, funnily enough, right up until 2005-06 we really didn't know anything about it here, either.

"But, when the BHP licence was awarded in 2006, that was the first time that I'd ever had any thoughts at all about mining or agriculture, in terms of the mining-agriculture interface."

She was one of the founder members of the Caroona Coal Action Group, which subsequently helped some local landholders take cases to the then Mining Warden's Court. It was an eye-opener, she says.

"Every idea that I had about democracy and fairness and legalities and proper process was completely offended by what I was seeing as we went through ... the Mining Warden's Court," she says.

"If you're a regular person going about your business you don't necessarily have a lot to do with the law. You think that the law is about obeying rules, and that rules are based on fairness, and that in a court of law each side has equal rights.

"But in the Warden's Court we took 22 landholders ... [who were] seeking proper conditions of drilling and access, and the court completely ignored some of the basic things that were wrong on the notices, such as the names [and] titles."

She alleges the court was so one-sided in favour of giving miners access to peoples' land that they disregarded basic procedure.

"There was one discussion we had about one of the landowners and it turned out that the court had named the wrong landholder altogether.

"They then said that this landholder was dead. And we said, 'Well, he's not dead. He's still alive and kicking.' And the Mining Warden just said, 'Listen, everybody. Everybody knows who we're talking about here. You know who they mean, they know who you mean, everybody knows who everybody means. What does it matter if they get it wrong?'

"You know, he made those sorts of statements. I just found it so offensive," Simson says.

The action group eventually took a case to the NSW Supreme Court, with the help of the National Farmers Federation's Australian Farmers Fighting Fund, which found in favour of the farmers the group was helping.

Soon afterwards the Mining Warden's Court was abolished. Such cases are now heard in the Land and Environment Court.

Just before that case, Simson's father-in-law, Richard Simson, a former mayor of Quirindi Shire Council, told the group they ought to try to expand their voice.

Fiona Simson looked at some bigger groups and settled on the NSW Farmers Association. The rest, as they say, is history.

The association's new president now spends a few days a week in Sydney, focused on helping NSW farmers restore some balance to the mining-farming relationship.

"We believe that these industries can all exist quite happily and need to be planned for. And, in fact, our state needs these industries but they need to be planned for," she says.

Yet despite her success, Simson says she's a wife and mother first, a farmer second. Her first love is her family - Ed and their daughter, Jemima, 20, and son, Tom, 18, and her mother, Barbara, who still lives in Armidale, two hours' drive away.

In the precious spare time she gets Simson loves to walk, something she wishes she could do more of. But for now, the demands of representing NSW farmers and fighting their corner takes precedence.

One gets the feeling her father would be proud of her.

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