Anna Bligh’s struggle with out-of-control health costs received an unexpected bailout yesterday, when the secretive philanthropic svengali Chuck Feeney stumped up the biggest-ever donation in Australian history.

Feeney, the subject of this Australian Story in 2007, famously gave up his personal fortune in 1984, gleaned from selling duty free goods to British expats at the old Hong Kong Airport, to work behind the scenes to fund worthy projects. Feeney doesn’t live in Australia — his main connection to the country is through old tennis mate Ken Fletcher.

With Bligh and Treasurer Wayne Swan on hand to celebrate his largesse, the soft-spoken Irishman pledged $100 million to three medical institutes, bringing to $270 million the total amount given by his private donations behemoth Atlantic Philanthropies over the past decade. The donation is all the more extraordinary given the leverage extracted from government — the Queensland and federal governments will match Feeney’s funding to the tune of $177 million and $325 million respectively.

The re-emergence of Feeney was unexpected, after Atlantic provided notice in mid-2003 that that it had shifted its funding priorities away from Australia to focus instead on the developing world and needy communities in the US and UK. However, it had been quietly donating locally since then, with $50 million distributed in 2005.

So what does it say about home-grown philanthropy when a quiet Irish American can suddenly set local records?

“It is absolutely tragic that greatest philanthropist in Australia doesn’t live in Australia, is not married to an Australian and whose only connection to Australia is via an old tennis mate”, philanthropy activist and former Microsoft Australia chief, Daniel Petre, told Crikey.

According to Petre, the donation rate among wealthy Australians pales in comparison to the the US, where the top 20 rich listers give away 15% of their wealth.

Petre’s claims are backed by the damning Good Times and Philanthropy report, published in March 2008 by Queensland academics Kym Madden and Wendy Skaif. Australian rich listers give about 2% of their income to charity, compared to the US rate of 3.5% and the Canadian rate of 3.2%. According to the ATO, 40% of Australia’s top 5% of wage earners give little or nothing to charitable causes.

“While no detailed figures exist in Australia, tax statistics indicate that making substantial donations still constitute an exception rather than a norm for the wealthy”, QUT says.

Three years ago, Crikey compiled a list of Australia’s biggest donors. The usual names, including the Pratts, the Fairfaxes and the Smorgons, all made it on. But compared to their wealth on that year’s BRW Rich List, the giving percentages were pitiful.

There are some promising examples of Feeney’s shining example rubbing off. Last year, pugnacious Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer stumped up $100 million for similar medical research in Western Australia — at the time Australia’s biggest corporate donation. In 2005, transport kingpin Greg Poche handed over $32.5 million for a melanoma unit at a Sydney hospital.

Next year the Petre Foundation will again commission a report to investigate donation rates among Australia’s rich. But if history is any guide, the best we can expect from Australia’s gilded class is less than they can afford.