In a rare show of political unity, Mr Howard and Kim Beazley, the opposition leader, are visiting Darwin together to bid farewell to the troops. There is a remarkable degree of consensus among the general public, too, about the wisdom of Australia's leading role in the peacekeeping force. Even families of soldiers about to depart say they support it.
Cheryl Walters, whose son Sean will be among the troops, told the Melbourne radio station 3AW she believed there was no option other than to send in the multinational team. "Sean is prepared to do the job he has to do, I know that," she said.
Mr Howard, not the most popular of prime ministers, has won general praise for his handling of the East Timor crisis and his steadfast lobbying for a UN-mandated peacekeeping force.
Yesterday he denied a report in the Australian newspaper that he had risked alienating the United States over East Timor by withholding intelligence about events in the province. "Throughout this year, Australia's exchanges with the US on East Timor have been intense at all levels - political, diplomatic and military," he said.
In a message to the nation in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, Mr Howard said: "It is not only right that Australia join other nations in supporting the United Nations in East Timor; it is also in our national interest. Continued instability in a territory so close to Australia could have harmful consequences for us in the long run."