Some years ago, when the then prime minister, Paul Keating, decided to launch the Australian republic campaign, a chap by the name of Malcolm Turnbull emerged as the public face of the republican cause.

Turnbull was, at that time, the head of the Australian Republican Movement, and the idea that Australia should become a republic enjoyed popular support as measured by the public opinion polls.

Years later (admittedly with a monarchist Liberal prime minister overseeing the debate), Mr Turnbull had carriage of an election to decide the fate of the republic – in this case, a constitutional referendum – that failed spectacularly amidst rancour and division between the republicans.

So off – putting had the head of the ARM become to the republican cause, it became necessary to find alternative advocates.

The republic referendum was Malcolm Turnbull’s first great electoral test, and he failed it comprehensively.

This is worth remembering, because a not – dissimilar dynamic is occurring in the contemporary Australian political debate where, Mr Turnbull, in the role of Liberal Opposition leader, is presiding over another downward spiral in support.

This time the adverse vote reaction, as measured in the opinion polls, is in response to the viability of the Liberal-National coalition as an alternative to the Rudd Labor government and, more significantly, on the question of who voters would prefer as prime minister.

Mr Turnbull, it should be remembered, took the Liberal leadership from Brendan Nelson soon after opinion polls indicated that approval for Turnbull’s predecessor had slumped to 18 percent. Turnbull’s brief was to try to raise the profile of the Liberal leadership while buttressing the Coalition’s support amongst voters.

The theory was that Turnbull would be able to exploit a deteriorating economic situation where increasing unemployment and economic insecurity would, in theory, erode support for Kevin Rudd and Labor.

This is clearly not happening, and Turnbull himself now sits on the dreaded 18 percent approval rate.

Like Nelson, Turnbull has, in the form of Peter Costello, a leadership rival stalking his every failure.

Unlike Nelson, however, Costello has made it clear that he will not seek the leadership just now.

The Costello strategy seems obvious enough: wait for Turnbull to lose the next election, and then expect the Liberal party to unanimously ‘draft’ the former federal treasurer to the leadership.

Implicit in this is the general view that, as far as the Coalition is concerned, the next federal election is lost.

Turnbull’s apparent failure in the Liberal leadership (rather like his failure in the republican debate) is interesting to ponder.

At one level, the man’s record seems to suggest he is not naturally suited to leadership. Yet Turnbull is as urbane and pragmatic as is necessary to be politically successful in Australia notwithstanding the snide jibes sometimes made by the press gallery about his propensity to not suffer fools gladly (a characteristic apparently also by shared Kevin Rudd).

What is happening to Turnbull has more to do with the real problems that beset his party than anything about Turnbull himself.

Indeed, that was also the case with the republic campaign.

In his campaign for a republic, Turnbull was undermined by a fundamental split within his own side.

On the one hand, were the minimalist republicans who simply wanted to remove reference to the Queen in the Australian constitution, while, on the other, were to be found those who wanted the republican cause to be a vehicle for major social, political and constitutional change.

These radical republicans rallied around the cause of a directly – elected head of the Australian – a position that Turnbull could not and would not support.

Like the republican movement, Mr Turnbull’s Liberal party is hopelessly hamstrung between its moderates who dare to imagine a pragmatic direction for the party in its bid to attract voters (and who used to see Turnbull as one of their own), and the right-wingers still romantically clinging to the notion that John Howard was a great prime minister, and that the conservative agenda should be pursued notwithstanding its rejection by the voters in 2007.

By trying to appease these factional tendencies, Mr Turnbull has presented a confused and confusing opposition to the public.

Thus the party that once venerated trade with China as a Howard legacy now tries to besmirch anything to do with China as somehow sinister and detrimental to national interests.

As the world’s governments talk about stimulus packages for national economies, the Liberal opposition talks about expenditure cuts.

The Liberals criticise the Rudd government’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) as potentially detrimental to the nation’s economy, yet Mr Turnbull speaks of greater cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

It is often said that being opposition leader is one of the hardest jobs in Australian politics, and Mr Turnbull is showing this to truly be the case.

Turnbull’s problems are not all of his own making, however, and the Liberal party is going to have to do more than simply shift leadership personnel around if it is to become a truly viable oppositional force to Mr Rudd and his Labor government.

Dr Economou is a senior lecturer in Politics at Monash University.