MONTREAL - The Conservative government moved to allay concerns among ethnic groups Friday that their job prospects could be diminished by a move to eliminate an affirmative-action policy in the federal public service.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney held a late-afternoon conference call in which he fielded a battery of questions from ethnic media about the implications of a federal policy shift.

The government announced this week that it would review federal hiring policies and said it planned to scrap a practice where some jobs are reserved for minorities.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada estimates that such an exclusive policy applies to less than two-tenths of one percentage point of all federal jobs -- or 91 of the 5,000 posted in 2008.

Kenney assured reporters from different community media outlets that broader efforts to encourage minority hiring would otherwise continue.

"There's been some misunderstanding that we're somehow ending or questioning or throwing into doubt the broader affirmative-action program," Kenney said.

"That is not the case. We are merely encouraging the public-sector employers to ensure the principle of equality of opportunity."

But he called it unfair that some current federal jobs explicitly allow or prevent applications based on race: "It's not necessary to exclude people racially to achieve equality."

Kenney's comments came after the opposition railed against the Tory move earlier Friday.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff visited one of Canada's most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods and applauded the work ethic of immigrants in a speech to supporters Friday.

He declared his party's support for affirmative action and accused the government of a partisan stunt.

"I have a feeling what we're seeing is not so much a right turn, as a return to the Conservative base, which is far to the right," he told reporters while visiting the Montreal riding of MP Justin Trudeau.

"We're seeing the reality of Conservative politics. . . We can't understand how Mr. Harper keeps creating problems where there aren't any."

The government itself acknowledges that around only one per cent of job openings are limited to members of designated groups -- which include aboriginals, the disabled, visible minorities and women.

That insignificant number is proof, opponents say, that the government had politics in mind.

With a supposedly fiscally austere government plunged deep into deficit, and no sign of a Mike Harris-style assault on federal spending in sight, opponents believe the Tories are taking steps to keep supporters motivated.

This summer has already seen moves to limit Statistics Canada's census-taking power, ban funding abortions abroad through the G8 and, now, a mostly symbolic swipe at progressive hiring policies.

The NDP compares those moves to little scraps of red meat.

"It's partisan food for a party that's having some concerns with its own base in Alberta," said NDP MP Paul Dewar.

"In the last couple of days we've seen the Conservatives basically carving out little issues and feeding them to their base."

None of the moves appear set to trigger a life-or-death showdown in parliament, however.

Dewar described the moves over the census and affirmative action as "mischief" and said a confidence motion was unlikely.

Neither the Liberals nor the Bloc Quebecois replied to emails asking whether they would take any means necessary to protect affirmative action policies.

But the opposition will nevertheless find no shortage of faults with those policies and seek to exploit them politically.

Before getting back on board the bus taking him on a cross-country tour, Ignatieff spoke of his father who arrived as a penniless child in Canada when his blue-blooded family was forced to flee communist Russia.

"He benefited from Canada's openness," Ignatieff said. "And I want to defend Canada's openness."