Prime Minister Tony Abbott has officially welcomed home more than 250 Australian soldiers at a parade through the streets of Darwin, ending with a reception for troops and their families at the Northern Territory parliament.
Labor leader Bill Shorten also made a last minute dash to Darwin to attend the parade, after earlier indicating he would be represented by a junior stand-in.
Forty Australian soldiers lost their lives in the extended Afghanistan campaign and another 260 were significantly wounded among an estimated 30,000 who have been stationed in the Middle East since 2001.
Mr Abbott used the celebration to announce a special national day of commemoration for the 30,000 Australian personnel who served in the Middle East theatre of war since 2001.
It will be held in just over a year on March 21, 2015.
Mr Abbott told the gathering it was being set then to allow for the bulk of the 400 or so military personnel still serving in training and advisory roles in Afghanistan, to be brought back.
“As a nation it is important that we stop to acknowledge and honour those that have served and sacrificed for their fellow Australians and for the Afghan people,” Mr Abbott said.
“Those who serve must know that their country will not ask them to bear the emotional wounds of war alone”.
Mr Shorten's 11th hour decision to attend personally is being interpreted among service personnel in the Top End as a positive gesture.
It follows friction between Labor and the uniformed services caused by Senator Conroy last week when he used a parliamentary inquiry to accuse the Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, Lt General Angus Campbell of participating in “a political cover-up”.
Fairfax Media understands Mr Shorten, aware of the ill-feeling generated by the Conroy controversy, was eager to mend fences and ensure Australian defence force personnel were in no doubt as to the strength of bipartisan support for their efforts.
Accordingly Mr Shorten was able to re-arrange his affairs and hastily boarded the last Jetstar flight from Melbourne to arrive in the Top End late Friday.
Senator Conroy's comment touched off a series of strong reactions.
Chief of Defence Forces, David Hurley publicly lamented the Conroy comment, and the House of Representatives condemned Senator Conroy, who, despite having withdrawn his remarks, had not specifically apologised.
A government source confirmed that Mr Shorten and his defence spokesman had both been expected to attend and were initially on the list for the Darwin parade also being attended by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
But it is understood neither had been available.
Mr Shorten had a family commitment in Victoria and Mr Conroy had already accepted an invitation to an RAAF commemoration of the 100th anniversary of military aviation.
Until the late decision by Mr Shorten, two relatively junior stand-ins, shadow parliamentary secretary for defence, Gai Brodtmann, and shadow parliamentary secretary for indigenous affairs and northern Australia, Warren Snowden – the latter based in the territory - were to represent the ministers.
Along with the 30,000 ADF personnel, there have been officers of the Australian Federal Police, public servants, and others involved in the Afghanistan commitment.
Mr Abbott said: “Today I give thanks to more than 250 Darwin based soldiers at a welcome home parade marking the end of their deployment to Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan during 2013 ...
“Along with their families and friends, they have displayed great courage and personal sacrifice to keep our country safe and to build a better future for the people of Afghanistan and the broader Middle East.
“I have seen first-hand the dedication and professionalism of our troops serving in Uruzgan and, on behalf of a grateful nation, I sincerely thank them for their service.
“I look forward to national commemoration activities next year.”